Free Covid-19 testing for the majority of workers has now ended, but that doesn’t mean testing won’t still be beneficial to employers. Alex Sheppard makes the case for continued investment in workplace coronavirus screening.
The UK government has decided now is the time to withdraw access to free Covid-19 testing for the majority of the population – the surest sign yet that it considers the pandemic to be behind us.
Omicron turned out to be fairly mild compared to its preceding variants, and with over two thirds of the UK population triple-jabbed, only vulnerable people and those working in high-risk environments will be able to access free tests.
But while there is certainly a general sense that pre-pandemic life is now returning, many concerns remain, with England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Witty warning of rising hospital admissions and conceding that coronavirus is likely to persist for decades. At the end of March 2022, one in 13 people in the UK were believed to be infected.
For business leaders, the restoration of societal norms will bring much relief, particularly those who are desperate to see their employees return to the office after a prolonged period of enforced home working. And yet, the current infection levels – while tolerable from the government’s perspective due to the manageable impact on the NHS – could cause huge problems for businesses that don’t pick up the mantle and make testing a part of their ongoing workplace operations.
The case for continuing testing
There are three reasons for this. Firstly, as seen in some sectors already, an outbreak causing mass absenteeism through illness and/or isolation periods (though this is no longer a legal requirement) would trigger severe business interruption – best avoided during a period of 30-year-high inflation and sky-rocketing costs.
Secondly, there is still a legal requirement for businesses to protect workforce health and safety. All employees – especially those vulnerable to developing severe infection or who are carers for susceptible people – must be safeguarded against exposure as far as possible. And, of course, without testing, asymptomatic staff have no way of knowing they are hosting the virus.
Workplace Covid-19 testing
Free Covid tests for workers in ‘high risk’ settings from 1 April
HR must be vigilant as remaining Covid restrictions end
Early end to Covid isolation rules poses tough questions for employers
Thirdly, the pandemic has seen a shift in priorities among workers. Many employees are fed up with poor workplace safety measures and are in search of employers who value their wellbeing. High turnover is expensive, and businesses that fail to preserve health and safety in the coming months could seriously damage morale, with lasting consequences.
Will employees continue to test in the absence of free tests? This seems unlikely given the current cost of living crisis. Will they adhere to the recommended isolation period, even if well enough to attend the workplace? Again, it seems a stretch when there is no requirement to do so.
In the absence of a statutory government policy, it is essential that employers continue their own testing programmes, and should even consider offering enhanced sick pay to those workers ineligible for statutory sick pay to avoid the rampant spread of the virus throughout their staff.
After all, supporting the health and wellbeing of employees has a direct benefit to business performance as well as enhancing an organisation’s reputation as a responsible employer. Employees that feel valued and taken care of are likely to be more productive and dedicated to their role, contributing to higher profitability. And investors, employees, and customers increasingly favour companies with a robust, proactive approach towards ESG. Companies that take better care of their workforce could gain an edge over competitors when looking to hire top talent or seeking additional investment.
Screening and risk assessments
Uncertainty in the early stages of the pandemic wreaked havoc for businesses. Given that we still don’t know exactly what will happen next, infection-wise, business owners must be prudent with risk assessment strategies for Covid-19 to account for all possibilities.
The threat of future health crises is tangible, and consideration should be given not only to the efficacy of testing programmes, but also to the need for flexibility – to quickly ramp up and scale testing measures when new situations arise.”
Most notably, setting up a robust workplace Covid-19 testing infrastructure will enable businesses to prepare for future mutations. The threat of future health crises is tangible, and consideration should be given not only to the efficacy of testing programmes, but also to the need for flexibility – to quickly ramp up and scale testing measures when new situations arise.
Fortunately, the pandemic has propelled healthtech advancement, and we now have new testing capabilities that are more user-friendly and more accurate than traditional lateral flow methods. For example, saliva-based testing is less-invasive than nasopharyngeal swabbing, and it identifies any presence of the virus before infectiousness peaks (typically one to two days before the highest risk of passing it on). In a workplace context, this is ideal for both confirmation of infection and general screening – a viable option to minimise Covid effects on business.
Covid-19 is not over
Four coronaviruses are already well established within the collection of seasonal viruses we’re accustomed to enduring each winter. The current virus is also likely to remain with us for a long time, and we may well see further mutations that either boost transmissibility (as seen with Alpha and Delta variants) or confer ability to better elude our immune systems (both Omicron and Delta strains). Whatever happens over the summer, we know with near certainty that winters for years to come will be blighted by recurrent peaks of Covid-19.
Workplace testing programmes will carry immediate benefits in preventing unnecessary disruption now that the government has withdrawn free testing. But more broadly, the pandemic has highlighted the pivotal role of the employer in safeguarding the health of the population. When future health crises unfold – and most health experts are already concerned about what will happen next winter – employers will be increasingly expected to act first, rather than waiting for the government to step-in with mandatory protections.
In short, it’s the time for business leaders to heed the lessons of the pandemic and take a lasting, meaningful action on improving employee wellbeing and health and safety.