The latest stage of lockdown has inevitably brought many new unknowns, as the UK again attempts a new way of living safely during the Covid-19 pandemic. With many people now going back to work (or preparing to), there are urgent questions from those who cannot work from home around how to minimise the risk of coronavirus infection. The government have set out sector-specific guidance outlining what a safe workplace should entail, but what about testing of workers themselves? For those on the frontline, this is a matter of critical importance.
Covid-19 tests were finally made available online last month. Employers have been able to refer key workers self-isolating with symptoms for testing since 24th April, though undertaking the test is still voluntary. The newly-launched portal also made it possible for essential staff and their families to book tests for themselves directly, and on 28th April, access to testing was further extended to include anyone who has to leave home to work. However, the system quickly saw overwhelming demand, with the first appointment slots filled within hours and home test kit supplies depleted. Though initial supplies were exhausted, the government pledged to ensure that large numbers of additional tests would be available over the coming weeks. Tests can be booked at www.gov.uk/coronavirus. Once a test has been booked through the portal, the user will receive a text or email that day, inviting them to attend a drive-through test at one of over 40 UK locations, or to receive a home testing kit.
So what about the government’s promise to fulfil 100,000 tests per day by the end of April? Matt Hancock claimed at the start of May that the target had been met, with a figure of over 122,000 quoted on the last day of May alone. This number denotes the number of tests sent out; there is no guarantee that all of them will be taken, while some may need to take a test twice for a reliable result. So this is no indication of how many people are actually being tested. Additionally, the government are now being challenged on how they arrived at those figures.
Following revelations that the government changed the way it counted testing towards the end of April in order to meet the promised numbers, they have been urged by the UK Statistics Authority to be more transparent going forward. Since the health secretary’s triumphant announcement at the end of April, the 100,000-daily-tests pledge has consistently failed to be met. Despite this, Boris Johnson promised to double this figure to a highly optimistic 200,000 per day by the end of May. In order to increase testing supplies and hit the high targets being set, additional testing methods are being trialled. These include satellite tests sent directly to care homes and almost 100 mobile coronavirus testing units touring the country, which are being run by the military.
The latest announced guidelines around going back to work were still left open to much interpretation. The advice was to work from home where possible, with employers directed to make every effort to support this. However, the official Covid-19 Secure Safety Guidelines around protecting returning staff (where work can only be done from the workplace) are stated as applying to those in essential retail. Workers classed within the essential category, who are now allowed to go to work – and can access testing if experiencing symptoms; as can members of their household – include:
- All NHS staff, frontline or otherwise
- Care workers
- Emergency services
- Teachers and social workers
- Cleaners in hospitals
- Public servants
- Delivery drivers
- Supermarket workers
- Food chain workers
- Staff administering takeaway / delivery services at restaurants and cafes
- Utility workers
- Construction and manufacturing staff
- Transport workers
- Workers in labs and research facilities
- Tradesmen, cleaners and others working in people’s homes
- Anyone facilitating trade or transport goods
- Funeral industry workers
- Public safety and national security staff
Section Two of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 contains employer guidance which is particularly relevant to the risks of Covid-19. This includes, of course, ensuring the health, safety and welfare of employees, which will now include referring those showing symptoms for testing. The HSWA also states that information, instruction and training should be given around how employers are to be kept safe. Therefore, information and guidance around the prevention of coronavirus and its spread is imperative. It is also more important than ever that employers follow the directive around ‘providing adequate facilities and arrangements for employees’ welfare at work’, namely sanitary and hand wash facilities. Some employers are now also considering temperature tests for workers upon arrival at work, to ensure close monitoring of Covid-19 symptoms and workplace protection from the virus’s spread.
With the phased return to work now inviting more ambiguity than ever over whether to stay home, how do employers and workers decide whether it is necessary for them to return to the workplace? The CIPD have set out three vital questions which should be asked:
- ‘Is it essential?’ - Those who can still work from home are advised to do so for the foreseeable future – if not, the Government Job Retention Scheme should be looked into if the work isn’t essential
- ‘Is it sufficiently safe?’ - Employers are reminded that their duty of care requires them to manage risks and take the time to test health and safety measures, among gradual numbers of returning workers
- ‘Is it mutually agreed?’ - Any concerns should be raised, with both employer and employee willing to be flexible with schedules to manage issues, such as commuting / transport.
In cases where employees experience Covid-19 symptoms and take a test where the result is negative, they can return to work providing they have not had a high temperature in the last 48 hours. Members of their household will also need to have tested negative and not had symptoms. If the result is negative, employees need to be encouraged to self-isolate (and should not work from home), during which period they should receive sick pay.