Since July 19th, 2021, when the UK officially removed all but a few remaining COVID-19 restrictions, businesses have no longer been eligible for free COVID-19 testing.
This brought to an end a scheme that only really began in April and drew widespread criticism from business leaders, especially from those in sectors like hospitality and live music venues that have been hardest hit in the pocket by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alongside testing, several other schemes designed to support businesses through the pandemic have either already or will soon come to an end.
At the time, Craig Beaumont, the chief of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said that workplace testing is still a necessity given that one in three people with COVID-19 show no symptoms.
“It’s an important weapon to stop the new variant circulating in business premises, and it underpins the June unlock date. It makes no sense to withdraw it just at the point we need more confidence in our businesses being Covid-secure,” he said.
The end of free COVID-19 testing for businesses means that employers with existing testing programmes will need to reassess the situation and decide whether to fund the cost of test kits themselves, encourage staff members to order their own free lateral flow tests from the government, or end workplace testing altogether.
The government has confirmed that free lateral flow testing will continue to be available to the public until the end of August at the earliest, if not longer. Once free public testing has come to an end, however, the government has said that it will not start charging for lateral flow tests, leaving the private sector to control the price of testing kits.
Prior to July 19th, the government provided lateral flow tests to registered businesses completely free of charge. Now that most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, the provision of lateral flow tests to businesses has been stopped, but private individuals will still be able to obtain free COVID-19 test kits from the government website.
That’s totally up to you and depends on whether you want to retain control and oversight of the process. The only way to reliably do this would be to pay for your testing kits and operate a scheme internally. Without running the testing scheme on site, an employer has no way of knowing whether employees are actually being tested regularly.
In addition, it’s important to consider the logistics involved; employees may be reluctant to self-test if they’ve got to routinely order their own kits and input details online.
The lifting of legal requirements to wear masks and social distance may strengthen the argument that employers can require mandatory testing, especially in enclosed spaces like offices where staff members spend lots of time near one another.
The latest government advance on safe working during coronavirus does not provide any specific advice on whether employers should be testing their staff in most types of workplaces. However, there is guidance for employers with operations in the “events and attractions” and “hotels and guest accommodation” sectors which says that employers should “consider asking” employees to “get tested regularly”.
While imposing mandatory testing on employees is possible, it does come with an element of risk due to data privacy and employment legislation.
Without going into too much detail, employees who are dismissed for refusing to comply with mandatory testing could in theory make a claim of unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal. However, the employment tribunal has so far sided more with employers on COVID-related claims where employees have not complied with safety measures, even those that go beyond strict legal obligations, if the employer can demonstrate a clear rationale for doing so.
With the current state of things, the best approach might be to consider mandatory testing only for employees who have not been double-vaccinated and don’t have an NHS COVID pass.
From August 16th, fully vaccinated individuals who have been vaccinated with an MHRA-approved COVID-19 in the UK do not have to self-isolate following a notification by NHS Test and Trace that they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks after receiving their second dose.
This also applies to under-18s, participants in clinical UK vaccine clinical trials, and those with clinical reasons for being unable to have any of the authorised vaccines.
Tests can identify whether someone currently has or previously had the disease, helping to pinpoint isolated cases and outbreaks. While the NHS is the main route to access free PCR tests for those with symptoms, those without symptoms mostly rely on regular lateral flow testing—a faster and more convenient alternative.
A lateral flow test, also known as a lateral flow device (LFD), uses the same type of technology as that found in pregnancy tests.
After the sample from the testing swab is put into a special solution, it is transferred to the LFD and a result is delivered in around 30 minutes. The test paper inside the LFD changes colour if the swab sample taken from the throat and nose indicates that coronavirus is present in it.
This is very different from a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test which is much more accurate because it involves a laboratory analysing the sample, which is a more controlled environment. That being said, newer lateral flow tests such as the Hughes Healthcare Rapid Antigen Testing Kit is highly accurate, much more so than the tests provided by the government.
As we all know by now, one in three people can have COVID-19 without showing any symptoms. This is known as being asymptomatic and it is one of the reasons why the COVID-19 disease has been so problematic and fast-spreading. If people don’t know they’ve got it, they’re more likely to go about their normal daily lives and spread it to other people.
The benefit of asymptomatic testing—i.e., testing despite not having any symptoms—is that it catches cases that would have otherwise been undetected. This allows individuals to isolate and prevent the virus from spreading.
As workplaces were re-opening, the government was understandably keen to ensure that workers would regularly test themselves and avoid spreading COVID-19 among the working population, and thus they provided free testing to businesses. This has come at a substantial cost to the government and while no rationale has been provided for ending free business testing, it’s safe to assume that the government views most workplaces as a lower risk now that the vaccination rate is so high and that restrictions have so far been successfully removed.
Now that free testing has ended, businesses are now required to fund the cost of lateral flow test kits themselves.
Lateral flow tests can easily be purchased online from a range of approved vendors. This includes HandStations, and we sell a range of reliable lateral flow testing kits from reliable manufacturers including Hughes Healthcare and Healgen from as little as £3.00 per test when purchased in bulk quantities.
As an employer, you’ve got to decide whether lateral flow COVID-19 testing is the right move for your business now that free testing has ended. When considering whether to continue testing, it’s important to weigh up the latest government advice along with the needs of your employees, your operations, and the industry your business operates in.
While the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be coming to an end in the UK, it’s still wise to continue providing some form of testing for your employees. This helps to instil trust and confidence and increases the possibility of your business getting back to normal sooner rather than later.