As part of the new government drive to increase workplace testing and catch undetected cases of COVID-19, the number of employees required for a business to be eligible to join the workplace testing programme has been reduced to 50. But what is the testing programme and is your business eligible?
What is the workplace testing programme?
The workplace testing programme aims to detect cases of COVID-19 in people who are not showing symptoms in order to prevent them from spreading the virus without realising. Recent statistics indicate that a third of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and may be unknowingly spreading the virus, in particular to their colleagues at work.
The testing programme has been designed to reduce the chain of transmission of the virus at work. Under the programme, workplaces that remain open can establish targeted on-site testing, enabling employers to regularly test employees which, combined with social distancing and other preventative measures, should help prevent outbreaks of the virus at work.
So far, 112 organisations in the UK across almost 500 sites have signed up, including Royal Mail, Transport for London and the DVLA.
What is the test?
Employees will be given a "lateral flow test" – an LFD antigen test, which produces a result within 30 minutes. However, although taken in the same way (using a swab), the tests are less reliable than PCR COVID-19 tests (the "normal" tests that have been used since early 2020). Therefore, if an employee’s LFD antigen test comes back positive, they must immediately go for a PCR COVID-19 test and isolate until they have received a negative result from that test.
Will my business be eligible to join the workplace testing programme?
You can register to join the workplace testing programme and order tests if:
- Your business is registered in England
- You employ 50 people or more
- Your employees cannot work from home
Previously, businesses were required to have 250 employees to qualify for the programme but on 7 February 2021 the threshold was lowered to 50 in an effort to increase the take up of rapid testing and normalise testing at work. This means that small and medium size companies in both the public and private sectors will now be able to benefit from rapid testing. The government does not specify a minimum proportion of staff that cannot work from home for the employer to be eligible.
An online portal has also been launched to help businesses in the private sector to get involved and find out about how to offer rapid testing in the workplace.
Are there any pitfalls for employers?
Regular workplace testing is more intrusive than the social distancing and other so-called “COVID-secure” measures that have been adopted in the workplace for some time. Employers may encounter issues if employees do not want to be tested, particularly if this is for a religious, medical or ethical reason. While adopting a workplace testing programme is likely to be a proportionate way of protecting the health and safety of the workforce in most cases, employers should consider each employee’s individual situation and be prepared to make exceptions or adjustments where necessary.
Employers should consider the practical implementation of the testing programme, including, for example, where employees should wait pending receipt of the test results.
Employers should also be mindful that employees’ test results will comprise personal data and special category personal data. Employers should undertake a data impact assessment to consider how to minimise the data protection risks of holding this kind of employee personal data and take appropriate steps to safeguard it.
Communications with staff will be critical in reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace. There is a risk that the introduction of a testing programme will give employees a false sense of security, which may result in them failing to respect social distancing and other preventative measures. Given the limitations of lateral flow testing and the possibility that not all staff will consent to being tested, workplaces will need to continue to follow “COVID-secure” guidelines for some time to come.