How might the pandemic play out in 2021? Businesses must take the lead and invest in comprehensive COVID-19 workforce testing to get employees back to work, writes Dr Mark Simpson.
As the UK heads out of lockdown two and we begin to reflect on the year, it’s hard to believe the obstacles that businesses have had to overcome. With potential vaccines and therapeutic drugs that aid recovery in the pipeline, a fresh start in the new year seems promising.
However, we must remember that rolling out large-scale vaccination will be a long-term project and we still do not know how long the vaccines’ effects will last. Although a vaccine was approved in the UK this week, we have to be realistic about when it will be fully accessible to the general public.
In the meantime, the most effective thing that businesses can do is make sure their employees feel as safe as possible to aid the transition back to work. Tony Blair recently called for large-scale and rapid testing so that we can emerge from the second lockdown with a viable game plan that stops the rate of infection and allows us to begin tackling the economic cost of the pandemic.
The successful mass testing operation in Liverpool confirms that large-scale testing is the only strategy that will bridge the gap between lockdown restrictions and mass-vaccination. After identifying 700 positive cases of COVID-19 in asymptomatic people, testing has prevented the hidden spread of the virus across the city.
Businesses across all industries must play their role in boosting the economy and recognise that workforce testing is the first step to getting closer to business as usual, or at least surviving future lockdowns and local spikes until a vaccine is widely available.
But the world of testing can feel like a minefield to navigate and it can be difficult to know what systems are right for your individual business needs.
What testing is available?
There are two main types of COVID-19 testing available for the workplace that are MHRA-approved and CE Mark accredited: the rapid virus test and the rapid antibody test.
Rapid virus test
The virus test, also known as the antigen test, is a swab sample from the mouth and nose area from an on-site healthcare professional that can find out who has COVID-19 within 20 minutes. This form of testing is recommended to take place fortnightly. Similarly, there is a home testing kit which the employee can use and have results back from a lab within 48 to 72 hours.
Business owners and employees may feel slightly weary to rely on the virus test, but the accuracy has increased tremendously since the beginning of the pandemic and we are now looking at a negative result accuracy of around 99.5%. This is even more reassuring because it means the chances of a false negative and people carrying the virus unwittingly, endangering their fellow employees and risking business operations, is miniscule.
When undertaking a workplace testing programme, it’s the responsibility of the healthcare provider to notify Public Health England (PHE) of any positive results so that this can feed into data collection and track and trace process. PHE have confirmed that positive rapid tests do not need further polymerase chain reaction test confirmation, thus helping to reduce the burden on NHS resources.
The antibody test is a finger prick blood sample performed by a health advisor on site which can find out if somebody has had COVID-19 in the past and is temporarily considered immune. This kind of testing can have a dramatic difference to business operations as it can allow employees more freedom in the workplace and the opportunity to work in groups where necessary.
The antibody test is also beneficial for the employee as if they are found to have the antibodies, they can then avoid the virus swab test which can sometimes be an unpleasant experience. It is recommended that antibody tests are conducted every three to four months to ensure that employees are not susceptible to the virus again.
We have already seen the impact that workforce testing has had in various sectors that are seen as essential including food production, waste management and global security.
For instance, in the utilities sector we have provided mass virus testing to control room operators and antibody testing to those colleagues who carry out repair work in customers’ homes. Similarly, antibody testing for train drivers has allowed the businesses to continue to employ key workers that have been getting us from A to B throughout lockdown.
Without testing, these companies would not have been able to maintain their core business activities and their absence would have been truly felt. Now it is time for all businesses to follow suit and use the testing available to them to maintain business continuity and help the economy get back on its feet.
For the best results, businesses need to be proactive and implement a testing programme on a screening basis rather than reactive to an outbreak. Not only will this protect a business’ license to operate, but it will also open-up a confident line of communication between an employer and its employees.
Listen to your employees
Employees will understandably have anxieties about returning to work, and it is the employer’s responsibility to help soothe those nerves and demonstrate that they care. Workforce testing is the first step, but there are other ways that employers can help staff regain a sense of normalcy and safeguard their wellbeing.
Workforce testing cannot sit in isolation – it needs to be supported by a working environment that has adapted to the pandemic. Workstations need to abide by social distancing rules and PPE needs to be readily available to maintain strict hygiene controls.
Clear messaging is also vital to ensure that all employees are aware of the changes made to the workplace and know what new rules they need to follow. Employees will then recognise this as the new normal and adapt quicker.
Finally, returning to work has emotional as well as physical barriers for employees. Everyone has responded to the pandemic differently and there will be employees who have unfortunately lost loved ones or suffered financial stress. Listening to employees is crucial and knowing that their employer understands and cares about their individual situation will help greatly.
2021 can be a much brighter year if businesses act responsibly, diligently, and with care.
Dr Mark Simpson is chief medical officer at occupational health provider Health Management Ltd, a subsidiary of Maximus UK