Throughout the pandemic employers have looked at different ways in which they can keep their people, customers, suppliers etc safe whilst keeping their business alive. We have all found new ways of adapting the way we work to keep our businesses and people safe. However, many organisations are continuing to work with reduced and restricted capacity because we simply don’t know who may be infected and liable to spread the virus to other colleagues. Until everyone in the UK has been vaccinated (assuming everyone even consents to being vaccinated) we remain at risk of COVID infection.
One of the biggest concerns that employers are facing is the unknown – eg whether they have anyone working on the premises who is COVID-Positive (eg asymptomatic but infectious). The only way to have reasonable assurance that someone is not infectious is to test them. Now that COVID-19 testing has become more widely available, many employers, particularly those with large staff numbers or who provide critical services, are considering COVID-19 Testing in the Workplace as their key strategy to safe and effective working. This is in conjunction with the more traditional controls that employers have been adopting, eg good hygiene, maintaining distance etc.
What Tests are Available?
There are two main types of test.
One that identifies if a person has the virus. This is called a COVID-19 Antigen Test, and means that someone who tests positive will currently have the virus.
One that identifies if someone has previously had the virus and has antibodies. This is called a COVID-19 Antibody Test. It means the person is no longer infectious and will have their own immune response without having to rely on the vaccination.
What Type of COVID-19 Antigen Tests are available?
There are two types of Antigen tests available;
PCR Antigen Tests, which are Government approved and require taking a swab from the nose and throat of the person and is able to be administered by a healthcare professional or the patients themself via a home test kit. The specimen is then analysed in a laboratory and results are available in 20-48 hours following the test.
Rapid Response ‘Point of Care’ Antigen Tests, which must be CE-marked and adheres to Government guidelines. The test requires a healthcare professional taking a swab from the nose and throat of the person. The specimen is mixed with a reagent at the point of care without the need to send the specimen to a laboratory for analysis. Results are available in 15-20 minutes following the test.
What does COVID-19 Testing achieve:
Testing in the workplace will identify within a very short time-frame (typically 15-20 minutes) whether an individual has a current or past infection. For the former (ie current infection) it enables the person to self-isolate immediately, and for them to prevent risk of transmission to others. For the employer it provides several benefits, including:
Enables close contact occupations to work safely, knowing they are not infectious and liable to spread the disease to others
Enables tailoring of safety measures in the workplace such as social distancing
Is an effective proactive monitoring strategy of staff for the virus at work
Prevents spread to other colleagues, thereby affecting business continuity as well as potential for valued colleagues to become seriously ill
Reassurance to staff, customers and other stakeholders that they are in a COVID-19 free environment
Reduction of stress and mental health problems amongst your teams.
Improved efficiency by ability to schedule work teams/tasks more effectively
Testing enables targeted and focussed isolation only where it is needed, thereby saving costs associated with staff absence, reduced service or production.
NHS Test and Trace will not generally contact employers unless 2 or more new COVID-19 cases are linked to a workplace setting so your staff may get tested but you are not likely to be notified. And this only applies to people who have received a COVID test – the majority of your staff are unlikely to have had any test at all. So employers are currently working with a big unknown risk factor; “are any of my workers COVID-19 positive and spreading the virus unknowingly?
Is COVID-19 Testing at the Workplace Mandatory?
There is no legal requirement for employers to implement test programmes for staff at work. However, when done well, it can make a significant difference to the risk of spread at work, and helps to instil confidence in the workers and customers that their environment and colleagues are free from risk of infection. This can make a significant aid in business continuity.
How to Check that COVID-19 Testing Providers are Reputable?
The UK government has produced new legislation to ensure that anyone providing COVID-19 test services is reputable. Any provider must be accredited ISO 15189 and ISO 22870 or have evidence that they have applied for the standards and are working towards it. ISO 22870:2016 gives specific requirements applicable to point-of-care testing and is intended to be used in conjunction with ISO 15189. As they are internationally recognised standards, having your test regime completed by an organisation meeting this standard will help to demonstrate globally that the testing process is robust and accurate.
What Happens if A Colleague Tests Positive?
You will need to notify the person and ask them to leave site immediately and go home to isolate for at least 14 days. An area which is separated from others (eg an office or unoccupied room) should be made available where the person who tested positive can wait whilst they are being collected, or arranging travel home. The room should have an ample supply of tissues in case the person needs to cough/sneeze etc, and sanitiser for the person to hand-sanitise before touching anything and not be accessible to any one else other than those who have tested positive, or colleagues who have started to display symptoms.
If the person has used public transport you may wish to liaise with them to ascertain if a family member can collect them from the workplace, and then ask them to follow the highest level of protection (both driver and passenger to wear face masks, the passenger to practice frequent hand sanitisation, use tissues to cough/sneeze into and when touching the handles, open windows to aid ventilation etc). Alternatively they will need to call a black cab (as the passenger area is separated by glass panels) or other taxi service where the front and back sections are separated by screening, wear a mask and keep the window open to ventilate the inside as well as avoiding direct touch with touchpoints (using tissues etc). They will need to inform the cab driver so he/she can sanitise the touch-points afterwards and open all the doors to properly vent the inside.
Further Help and Advice
PHSC has been working to support clients wishing to introduce COVID-19 Testing at the Workplace. There are several providers offering a range of services, and one who we have found to deliver a prompt, professional and pro-active testing support package is the Harley Street Clinic. Please click here if you would like to know more about their services or to purchase some Tests Kits.
The UK government has also produced guidance on this topic for employers which is very detailed and cover all you need to know.
And of course, if you would like to speak to a specialist safety practitioner for impartial help and support, please call us on 01622 717700 or email . We can talk through your thoughts, concerns and ideas and help you decide if COVID-19 testing is suitable for your own workplace.