Testing, tracing, and isolating are a core part of the UK’s toolkit in the fight against COVID-19, and are likely to remain so until most of the UK population is vaccinated. This factsheet contains information for employers who might want to introduce their own workplace testing programmes for employees or others on-site (such as suppliers and agency staff). With up to a third of COVID-19 sufferers showing no symptoms, more widespread asymptomatic testing is one tool in response to the pandemic while enabling safe business operations.
Testing, tracing, and isolating are a core part of the UK’s toolkit in the fight against COVID-19, and are likely to remain so until – and even after – the majority of the UK population is vaccinated.
The NHS Test and Trace programme (for England) continues to provide testing for anyone with symptoms of the virus as well as tracing their contacts. The CBI has also created a complementary factsheet on testing to support firms to understand the overall testing landscape – in particular the types of test available – and a factsheet on Test and Trace (including links to guidance for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland).
What’s the latest information and insight?
Tests can identify whether someone currently has or previously had the disease, helping to pinpoint isolated cases and outbreaks – but the testing landscape is fast-moving and complex to navigate. To date, the NHS has been the predominant route to access free tests for those with symptoms, using ‘RT-PCR’ technology.
However, in recent months, developments in testing technology have created the opportunity to test an increasing number of people, both those with and without symptoms, as well as at a quicker and cheaper rate. These tests are known as lateral flow device antigen (LFD) tests and LAMP tests. This progress has the potential to unlock the wider reopening of the economy in the months ahead, moving away from lockdowns and social restrictions to giving people and businesses the much-needed confidence to resume activities like work and travel.
While promising news around COVID-19 vaccines offers a significant confidence boost to the economy, testing and tracing will continue to play a vital part. Currently, three vaccines have been approved for use in the UK: the BioNTech/Pfizer, Oxford/AstraZeneca, and Moderna vaccines – with several more due to be approved in the coming months. Some estimates predict that 80-90% of the population must be vaccinated to stop the virus spreading easily, and there is uncertainty around whether vaccines stop people being carriers. This means that even if someone has been vaccinated, they will have to remain in isolation for 10 days if they encounter someone who is infected. Given the pace of immunisation, an effective mass testing programme remains imperative for workplaces as an enabler for reopening the economy safely.
As testing technology becomes more widespread, businesses will have an increasing role to play in undertaking testing themselves, whether to test their workforce on a regular basis or to enable the return of customers as part of a wider reopening. The government has recognised this, releasing practical guidance for employers who want to offer workplace testing for asymptomatic employees, including advice on the testing process, the collection of results, communicating results to staff, and what an employer can and can’t do with a result.
Considerations for businesses
Finding a testing provider
Most businesses will engage with third-party providers rather than building an in-house testing system from scratch. The government expects employers using third-party testing providers to ensure that they meet the legal and regulatory requirements set out in its guidance for employers and third-party healthcare providers. To guide employers in their choices, the government has recently published a list of private testing providers who have declared that they meet the standards for private sector providers of COVID-19 testing – including reporting results to Public Health England (PHE), and having the relevant systems in place to report adverse incidents.
Before engaging in testing, businesses will need to think carefully about their operations and staff, taking learnings from their response to the pandemic to determine what will work best for their organisation. Some questions to consider include:
- What type of workplace settings will testing be most useful for?
- Which test will best suit my organisation’s need?
- What will testing enable my organisation to do?
- What are my legal obligations as an employer?
- What will the health and safety requirements be?
- How can I incentivise my workforce to take up testing?
- What are the logistical and practical requirements around the delivery of workplace testing? i.e., do I require additional trained staff to manage the programme?
- How regularly does testing need to be undertaken? How long should I implement testing for?
To help you navigate these questions, the CBI is working with the government as it develops guidance for businesses across these areas.
Deciding which tests to use
There are a variety of different COVID-19 tests available, with trade-offs between accuracy, pace, cost, and usability – which may impact which scenarios or workplace settings they are most suitable for. The government advises that businesses discuss with their provider what tests are appropriate for their workplace and the accuracy of tests. For more information about the different types of test and the UK’s approvals process, see the CBI’s factsheet on testing for COVID-19.
Employers should note that no test will be completely accurate and that every test gives a result for that point in time. Testing should therefore complement, not replace, other COVID-secure measures introduced by firms to stop the spread of the virus, such as social distancing and the use of face coverings.
Tracing works by identifying a confirmed case and asking the infected individual who they have been in contact with, helping to isolate cases before they become infectious and providing valuable insight into how the infection is being transmitted.
Some firms have also found it useful to set up internal tracing programmes to help monitor and learn from workplace outbreaks or identify possible areas of transmission. Businesses should note that this is not a substitute for NHS Test and Trace, with Test and Trace advice taking precedence over internal advice on isolation.
Statutory sick pay
Workers will be less likely to follow public health guidance to self-isolate if they have financial or job security concerns. Employees in self-isolation are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for every day they are in isolation, provided they meet the eligibility conditions. The government has published guidance on this. Some employees may also be eligible for a one-off payment of £500 under the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme (running until 31st Jan 2021).
SMEs can claim a rebate for SSP for one 10-day isolation per employee. They will need a Coronavirus isolation note from their employee to make the claim.
Employers should be explicit in their communication with workers of the level of support that their business can offer to people unable to work because they are sick or asked to isolate.
People are not eligible for SSP if they are ‘workers’, self-employed, or earn below £120 a week. SSP is paid at just under £96 per week. SSP rates could simultaneously be a financial penalty for employees who cannot work because of isolation, and an unsustainable cost burden for employers, particularly if employees are told to isolate for multiple periods. The cost for firms that offer occupational sick pay could also be much higher. The financial support available from government is continuing to evolve, and the CBI is encouraging government to consider extra support for firms and individuals.
Firms recognise the vital importance of protecting the sensitive data involved in Test and Trace, in order to maintain employee and customer trust in the use of their personal data while reducing the spread of infection. Health data is special category data under the GDPR, so you need a legal reason to process it.
Businesses should refer to guidance from the UK data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has produced workplace testing advice for organisations as well as general guidance on broader data protection issues related to the pandemic.
Currently, what will testing enable employers to do?
With rising infection rates and a new highly transmissible strain, workplace testing can help to protect your staff, helping to give confidence to those who continue to come into work, as well as your business operations.
However, if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, they must self-isolate for at least seven days. In addition, anyone who has been within two metres of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes will be asked to self-isolate for 10 days. They must stay in isolation for the full 10-day duration, even if they test negative in that time. This is due to the nature of the virus resulting in delayed onset of symptoms and levels of infectiousness.
Prior to the development of the new strain, the government had been piloting a repeat testing approach to enable close contacts of positive tests to be released from isolation if they continued to test negative. There will be continued trials of this approach in the weeks and months to come and it could offer a valuable solution to opening activities that have up till now been limited due to concerns around transmission.
Is there any financial support available for firms who want to introduce workplace testing?
The government has announced that asymptomatic testing is being expanded to those that cannot work from home during the current national lockdown. Businesses can register their interest to receive in bulk lateral flow tests free of charge to then distribute to relevant staff. The government will provide the testing kits and staff communication tools whilst businesses will be required to set up a test site and train staff to operate it.
Looking ahead the government is working across departments to scale up workforce testing in the weeks to come.
The CBI is engaging with government on this issue, whilst also recognising that for many companies, further information on what testing can enable businesses to do will be of equal importance in making decisions to invest in workplace testing. Read the CBI’s response to the announcement.
What action is government currently taking to roll out mass testing?
To date, the government has been engaged in an extensive mass testing programme utilising both lateral flow tests and PCR tests. Alongside tests for those with symptoms, wider testing has been occurring in:
- Community settings to help lift restrictions out of the highest tiers with high infection rates
- Care homes for staff and residents as well as visitors and visiting professionals
- Universities to enable students to return home over Christmas
- HGV drivers using the Port of Dover or Eurotunnel before leaving the UK for France.
Testing continues to be a vital tool in the UK’s armoury to fight the virus, particularly in conjunction with the roll out of the vaccination programme. Following the third national lockdown, the government will continue to roll out mass testing to a wider range of settings to aid with reopening in the coming months. See the latest data on testing figures.
What type of testing is occurring for travelling to/returning from other countries?
Given the global nature of the health crisis many countries around the world have introduced additional entry requirements including the need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure. See the requirements for different countries.
All international arrivals to England, including UK nationals, are required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken up to 72 hours prior to departure, with exemptions for some jobs such as hauliers and specialist technical workers – goods and services. Passengers will be subject to an immediate fine of £500 if they fail to comply with the new regulations on pre-departure testing.
As of 18 January, travel corridors have been suspended – meaning that all arrivals in England from anywhere outside the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man must self-isolate for 10 days. Passengers are also required to fill in a passenger locator form and are subject to national lockdown restrictions.
Testing for the purposes of international travel, either at departure or upon arrival, is not available on the NHS. To help find a provider, the government has composed a list of private test providers who meet the minimum standards for this purpose.
- Watch the CBI’s webinar with Baroness Dido Harding, Executive Chair of NHS Test and Trace, and Rebecca Weston, COO of Sellafield, to gain insight into how one firm is approaching workplace testing
- Watch the CBI’s webinar with Ben Osborn, MD and UK Country Manager of Pfizer, and Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, which provides insight into COVID-19 vaccination and the continued importance and potential of mass testing.