Return to the office with Covid Testing Plans
Corporate and office-based workers have largely been working at home since the beginning of the pandemic, with many not having been back to their offices since March of last year.
A previous drive to get workers back into offices in late summer of 2020 was abruptly ended when infection rates started to rise. Then in November, the UK government told us that those who can work from home should be prepared to do so until at least April 2021, over a year from when the pandemic first struck hard.
Following the arrival of the first of the Covid-19 vaccines late December' 20 and a vaccination programme currently in place for the most vulnerable across the UK, business leaders are looking ahead to think about when and what a 'return to the office' could look like.
For most, a phased return to the office starting sometime in the Spring of 2021 is the most likely option, given the current situation:
- England and Scotland are in lockdown following a new variant of Covid-19, which is proven to be more infectious than the original strain of the infection.
- After lockdown is relaxed, UK Tier systems are not likely to change overnight but will be gradually relaxed, which is unlikely to be before May 2021.
- The majority of private sector working-age people are not likely to receive the first dose of the vaccine until the summer of 2021.
Offices that have not had staff on site since the initial lockdown will need to implement Covid-19 appropriate protocols and procedures, while those that have, may need to adapt to accommodate more staff on site.
However, the main factor that will determine a successful return to office-based working will be employee confidence. Employers will need to reassure their staff that the workplace is a safe environment for them to be in and that their risk levels are being managed appropriately.
For many, a 'return to work' Covid-19 testing plan will be the most effective way to achieve employee confidence. Many sectors, including aerospace, travel, film and TV production have used regular testing throughout the pandemic as a way to stay operational. For others, particularly those in the corporate world where employees have been able to work from home, regular, accurate testing is proving to be a powerful new tool in their armoury in the fight to get the office back to something that resembles normal.
Aside from giving employees confidence in terms of their safety and the safety of their close friends and family, testing is also a very effective way to reduce absenteeism from the workplace. By identifying asymptomatic individuals who test positive for Covid-19 prior to returning to work, those infected can self-isolate and not risk passing the virus to others in the workplace.
By isolating those who are positive and those they have had close contact with, any potential outbreaks will be minimised and companies can begin to have offices and workplaces and perhaps even go back to a working life that feels like 'normal'.
The tests and the costs
There are a number of options for businesses to consider:
- At home employee testing: Tests are supplied for employees to complete at home 24-48 hours before their planned return to the office.
- Weekly rolling or fixed term testing programme (this can be done either at home or in the workplace).
- Confirmatory testing for who are using Lateral Flow Devices as a way of screening employees who are looking to return to work.
Then there's the question of what type of test to use: the lower cost 'rapid test' or the slightly more costly but far more accurate PCR test. For the corporate environment, we recommend the PCR test in terms of providing accurate results, building employee confidence and identifying and isolating new cases. Known as the 'gold standard test' the comparative cost per employee of bulk PCR testing versus rapid testing is minimal. For more information on the various merits of PCR versus rapid tests, read our analysis.
Having a plan in place and ready to rollout is key at this point in time. Covid Testing Network will create and cost a plan for you and help get everything in place for when you can put it into place and have your employees come back to the workplace. We've got a number of articles to aid in your understanding of everything related to Covid-19 testing.
The network supplies fully packaged plans to Occupational Health providers. It also provides packages to businesses directly where required, working with inhouse Occupational Health teams. They can also help connect businesses with appropriate occupational health resources if required.
For employers looking to bring workers back into the office asap, it is likely that testing plans will need to continue until at least the Spring, when the majority of vaccines are planned as having been rolled out to the majority of the vulnerable UK population.