Testing times

04 February 2021

AS I write, the UK is in its third period of full lockdown due to COVID-19, new variants of the virus are emerging and many businesses are of course feeling the pressure. Many, including myself and my colleagues on the IPE team, are able to work very effectively from home, however, this is not the case for everyone. In addition to the most obvious front-line workers, staff whose roles cannot be carried out from home continue to work across the manufacturing, industrial and distribution sectors. Workplaces have been adapted to accommodate social distancing and PPE has become a part of daily life.

Undoubtedly, the highly successful start to the vaccine roll-out in the UK is great news, but for much of the workforce, the reality is that they will not be inoculated until at least late summer. Add the fact that the vaccines don’t necessarily stop you from carrying and passing on the virus, and it’s pretty obvious that we all need to continue to take great care that our behaviour doesn’t risk further spread.

Anecdotally, I have heard of warehouses that have had to more or less cease operating because so many of the staff have contracted COVID-19. If businesses are to keep going, this kind of situation needs to be avoided.

While the UK’s national test and trace and system has not been particularly successful, businesses and public sector organisations are now recognising the importance of testing, with many joining a government scheme to test workers without symptoms who cannot work from home.

The scheme sees government departments are working in partnership with NHS Test and Trace to support businesses and public sector bodies to implement rapid testing, including organisations operating in the food, manufacturing, energy and retail sectors, and within the public sector including job centres, transport networks, and the military. An estimated 734,600 lateral flow tests have been distributed across the public and private sector so far, helping workers who need to leave home for work during lockdown to continue to do so, while quickly identifying those who may be carrying the virus.

Although not taking part in the particular scheme mentioned above, one company that is using rapid testing of its workforce to great effect is Co. Monaghan-based specialist forklift manufacturer, Combilift, where the measure is just part of a whole raft of initiatives the company has set in place to ensure the business continues to operate successfully in the face of the pandemic. Since 18 January employees have been tested using non-intrusive saliva tests, rather than swab testing. Lab results are available within 24, with the results being delivered via SMS. Combilift MD, Martyn McVicar reports that in the first week of testing, five asymptomatic cases were identified. Those employees then self-isolated, preventing them from inadvertently passing the virus on to their colleagues. In the second week of testing, just two cases came to light, while week three saw zero positive tests.

By providing workplace testing, Combilift is not only reducing the risk that its staff contract COVID-19, it is also giving them the reassurance that they are not going to pass the virus onto loved ones at home, some of whom might be vulnerable. And of course, this type of testing regime has wider societal benefits as it reduces the chances of undetected cases spreading more widely in the community.