Pandora’s Box? Coronavirus Test, Track and Trace scheme opens up to employers

coronavirus test track and trace

Are employers prepared for the scale and long haul?

Now that the Government has significantly opened up the Test, Track and Trace programme, employers of key workers can now register staff and members of their household for Covid-19 infection tests. Individuals can also self-refer themselves or household members to obtain either a home kit or a drive-in test.  

Until we have a vaccine, employers need to think in the long-term about how to manage the Test, Track and Trace scheme in their workplace. This is not a challenge that will last only for a few weeks, it could be as long as years. 

Pentup demand for a vast challenge 

It is unsurprising that demand exceeded capacity for test bookings within minutes of launch. Essential service employers see testing as a vital key to maintaining staff levels. Individual workers are equally keen to know if they, or a family member, has Covid-19, since it impacts not only their ability to work and earn, but to do so safely and without harming others. 

Meanwhile, employing organisations whose products and services are not considered ‘essential’ must continue to wait, with all the financial, operational and workforce management issues that this brings. They are understandably frustrated and pushing for faster and expanded testing to help them get everyone back to work.  

While business organisations and media press for faster expansion of testing, it is a monumental challenge. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that key workers make up 22% of the working-age population. ONS estimates suggest there are 33 million people in work. Consequently, this phase of testing may need to support 7.25 million key workers and their households.  

Differing views but one common goal 

Testing is at the centre of today’s Covid-19 debate and promises different things to different people.  

While organisations employing key workers are preoccupied with sustaining essential services, other organisations and commercial firms are more concerned with cashflow, business continuity or even survival, and a desired return to full operation and profitability. 

For the NHS, providing treatment to the right people and stemming clusters of future infection from asymptomatic carriers is absolutely vital.  

Only a robust testing programme can help the country towards a return to any normality and economic recovery, with effective treatments and a vaccine the ultimate solution. 

In pursuit of ‘normal’ operations 

To enable a return to somewhat ‘normal’ operations, employers have three essential imperatives: to keep healthy workers in work safely, get healthy workers back to work as fast as possible and get workers who have had CV19 back to work when the time is right.  

Testing helps to support these aims but in different ways. 

Antigen (throat and nose swab) tests detect whether someone IS INFECTED by the virus 

  • A negative swab-test (also known as an antigen or PCR test) enables you to bring back individuals who are confirmed as uninfected – although this status could change at any time. 
  • A positive swab-test confirms that the employee should remain on sickness absence, but enables employers to plan the timeline for return. Current health advice is for a full 7 days isolation after their temperature drops back to normal. 

Antibody (blood) tests detect whether someone HAS RECOVERED from (or is currently FIGHTING) the virus and has developed antibodies. There is no evidence yet to show that the presence of antibodies means any IMMUNITY 

Organisations seeking the holy grail of an ‘immunity passport’ may well remain unsatisfied. No reliable antibody test has yet been identified, and the presence of antibodies has not yet proven any immunity. See our previous article ‘Quest for a Test’ for more.

There are tests on offer and for sale, often at exorbitant cost. Although some may be reliable there is no way for a company to judge that. And, unlike certified and regulated healthcare workers, there are limited controls or sanctions on those who mis-trade or act unethically.  

Organisations are better served by utilising the national testing programme as it rolls out and can rely far more on its outcomes to accelerate the return to some normality. 

The practicalities and implications of testing  

There are implications for employers’ and employees’ participation. Not least that it adds another task for employers who are already stretched, and whose HR, Employee Relations, Occupational Health and wellbeing teams are working at top speed to manage absences. This alone is tough, thanks to the complex set of reasons associated with Covid-19 absences.  

Testing also raises a host of new practical and ethical challenges around the management of employee health, engagement, information, relations and riskThe expansion of testing gives many employers their first opportunity to get key workers tested but presents new considerations around the implications of test results. 

Among one of the biggest challenges is that employers will not be made aware of the results of the workers they send for testing – who are not obliged to take up the test opportunity. They may not even be aware when an employee self-refers. Even if they are made aware of results by an employee voluntarily, these must be taken in context:

Confirmed CV19 means someone is definitely NOT fit for work – but neither a negative CV19 antigen test nor a positive CV19 antibody test will prove that they ARE fit to work. 

Ultimately, how organisations choose to respond must be driven by all the usual duties of care over the health, safety and wellbeing of employees. As with other health surveillance challenges, they will need to make their own management decisions on handling many issues – balancing the needs of the employee with those of the wider workforce and organisation. 

There are numerous practical operational barriers to overcome in managing the processes and information associated not just with testing, but with employee health. Organisations of all sizes will need to establish systems and processes capable of handling the challenges now and in future, including to: 

  • track and manage the ‘Test, Track and Trace’ activities at a scale to span entire workforces, connecting activities to individual employee records and establishing tight controls to ensure only appropriate individuals can access data; 
  • connect employees that cite coronavirus-like symptoms personally or at home with the test booking process; 
  • support managers with alerts, point of need support and ability to engage employees effectively and quickly, since testing should ideally be within day 1 and 3 from symptoms onset; 
  • create approaches that can evolve to support a rolling cycle of Covid-19 related absences and testing for a year or more; potentially evolving to track immunisation should any vaccine become available; and 
  • manage a range of scenarios and outcomes that may arise from testing to treat employees as fairly and equally as possible – despite a scenario in which public health authorities have a right to require information without consent. 

Employee health must take centre stage 

However testing moves forwards and whatever the future course of Covid-19, it is quite clear that more rigorous and rounded approach to employee health duties of care will be required by all employers. Specially designed platforms will be essential not just to manage this, but to maintain a clear, current and complete view of workforce health in relation to the current and ongoing impact of the virus.  

Employee health cannot be, and should never have been, a tick-box exercise or lower-priority activity. Now a more conscious approach is needed to every aspect of employee protection, from operating safe systems of work, to providing personal protective equipment, training and support.  

Without confirmation of post-infection immunity or significantly effective treatments and without a reliable vaccine, we all face a changed future.  

Lockdown will end as a single national approach but is likely to change shape and transform into a long-term strategy that will see a range of restrictions on a periodic or geographic basis.   

Testing is a fundamental part of the way forward and will help shape the national strategy, but employers should not wait for this to start examining the important implications and changes that will be required to manage employment in a CV-19 influenced future.  

Businesses and organisations will be able to return to operating more normally, but it will be a new normal. The priorities for planning should now be how to get back into operation albeit with some new and inevitable limitations and challenges. 

Prepare now for when lockdown ends – because all organisations have a duty to their employees and to the country as a whole to help rebuild the economy and employment marketplace.  

Employee health must now sit at the very centre of all organisational strategies and plans. Implementing an employee health platform is an essential enabler of this and can directly help to streamline many of the inescapable practical and ethical challenges that employers will face in the post-pandemic world.  

If you need help, Empactis has a rapid deployment solution for Covid-19 workforce management and can provide advice and support around best practice. Call us now for an informal discussion.