What do we already know?
More than 112 organisations across almost 500 sites are offering rapid, regular workforce testing, and more than 2.5 million lateral flow tests have been distributed by the Government.
Lateral flow is an established technology, adapted to detect proteins (antigens) that are present when a person has COVID-19. The test kit is a hand-held device with an absorbent pad at one end and a reading window at the other and works a bit like a pregnancy testing kit. Inside the device is a strip of test paper that changes colour in the presence of COVID-19 proteins (antigens). The tests are simple and easy to use. Workers will be able to test themselves and receive results within 30 minutes.
Originally, the Government only supplied these lateral flow tests to employers with over 250 staff.
The Government has expanded its lateral flow testing to all employers (in sectors open during lockdown). All businesses in England are now able to sign up to the government’s free COVID-19 workplace testing programme (see here for details). The tests are for employees who are unable to work from home in line with the latest guidance and who are asymptomatic. The aim is to help enable employers to identify members of staff who have the virus but don’t have symptoms.
Both public and private sector employers are included in the testing. For example, London underground, border force staff at Heathrow, supermarkets and others in the food industry and retail sectors, manufacturing and energy, and public sector employers include the police, job centres, and the military.
If the employers and employees are eligible, the tests are provided free of charge until at least 31 March 2021. The Government has said that it will keep the position under review.
As part of the drive to encourage testing, the Government has launched a new online portal (see here) which employers can use to apply for tests. Applications are due to be processed within two working days.
The Government recommends that staff should be tested ‘regularly’ and that staff who have already been vaccinated against COVID-19 still need to be tested. The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) advice on mass testing is that tests should be carried out at least weekly.
If a member of staff refuses to be tested, then employers may be able to argue that it is a reasonable management instruction (because of the duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of staff) and treat refusal as a form of misconduct. The success of such approach will depend on the facts in that particular case, including the nature of the workplace, local outbreaks, whether there are particularly vulnerable colleagues and the extent of risk. Overall, it’s much better to try and persuade people first.