Can an employer require a covid test?

corporate covid 19 tersting

With the easing of lockdown on the horizon, many businesses will be looking to open up, either to serve customers in a retail environment or welcome employees back to the office.

Though the rollout of the vaccine programme may be building an increasing sense of confidence, it’s still incredibly important to remain vigilant. The virus is still very much present in the population and, with the added concern of multiple new strains, we are certainly not out of the woods yet.

It’s understandable that businesses will want to return to normality as soon as possible but, as part of a continued effort to reduce infections, employers have a duty of care to their staff to provide a ‘covid secure’ workplace.

Achieving this makes the option for regular testing, as well as appropriate hygiene measures and social distancing, likely to continue for some time. But, could workplace Covid-19 testing become compulsory?

There is no Government guidance in place that requires employers to carry out testing on their employees. This is true both for staff returning to the workplace or any other type of routine testing programme.

What is the current UK Government guidance?

Private covid 19 testing for business

At the moment, anyone displaying symptoms of Covid-19 can book a free coronavirus test from the NHS. 

There is no Government guidance in place, however, that requires employers to carry out testing on their employees. This is true both for staff returning to the workplace or any other type of routine testing programme. 

This means that any employers wanting to test their staff for Covid-19 must do so privately if the employees do not have coronavirus symptoms. 

Can employers demand that employees be tested?

There are a few reasons why an employer might be keen to introduce a testing programme for their staff. They may want to reduce the risk of an outbreak of the virus in the workplace, reduce disruption or provide confidence to customers, clients or suppliers in their logistics chains.

In looking to maintain a covid secure workplace, employers must balance the need to protect their staff and business with the personal interests of the employees, being mindful not to introduce a programme which is invasive. 

If an employee has symptoms of coronavirus, it is reasonable to ask that member of staff to be tested, in the interests of health and safety and protecting colleagues and customers. If they test negative, they will be able to return to work without having to self-isolate for 10 days. An employee that refuses a test in this situation may face disciplinary action, which could be justified. 

However, if an employee does not have symptoms of Covid-19, the situation is more complex. In order to reasonably ask that employees be tested, there needs to be a clear need. That can depend on whether the risks of Covid-19 can be managed in other ways, such as social distancing or remote working. 

For workplaces where this isn’t possible, due to close proximity, or where staff are in contact with the public, regular testing may be considered an appropriate and justifiable measure, to help identify cases and prevent the spread of infections. 

Employee testing programmes - what should employers keep in mind?

coronavirus strains infectious

Employers seeking to arrange a testing programme for their staff will need to be mindful of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Data Protection Act. 

This places certain obligations on the employer as to how health information data is handled, as well as their reasoning for requiring testing. It is important that employers provide clear information to their staff, before carrying out any testing. Employers will need to explain what employee data will be used for, how long it will be kept on file, who it will be shared with and what decisions will be made based on the test result. It’s important to get a good Covid-19 testing policy in place before beginning a Covid-19 employee testing programme. 

What type of testing is recommended?

With private Covid-19 tests for employees adding a substantial cost to businesses and frequent testing likely to become part of ensuring business continuity and safety, it’s vital that employers have access to reliable testing options.

There are two types of testing used to diagnose cases of Covid-19:

Lateral flow tests are similar in appearance to home pregnancy testing kits. A swab is used to collect a sample from the nose and throat. This is then inserted into a tube of liquid for a set amount of time. Drops of the liquid are then added to a test strip which will show a result after 30 minutes.  

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PRC) testing also involves collecting a sample from the nose and throat using a swab. This sample is then sent to a laboratory for testing, where the RNA is isolated and applied to other ingredients that recognise and bind to SARS-CoV-2. The following reaction, or lack thereof, is used to diagnose the presence of the virus. 

Because lateral flow testing produces a result in 30 minutes, it’s a preferable option when it comes to keeping businesses moving. But it isn’t a silver bullet. While the test might be fast, there are concerns about the accuracy of the results, (link to lateral flow article) with some studies showing significantly high failure rates for detecting the virus.

PCR testing, although comparatively slower, is a much more reliable method and is the standard testing process followed by the NHS. Results may take longer than Lateral Flow testing, but greater accuracy makes the management of employees’ time in and out of the office, and risk management in general, more efficient overall. 

Private Covid-19 testing for employers

Blue Horizon Medicals offers a comprehensive corporate service to help employers manage both a safe return to work, and a covid secure workplace.

We can offer a screening solution for personnel returning to work, particularly helpful for employees who work in closed environments such as offshore installations, or where there may be recirculating air such as factories or aircraft.

Self-testing en masse is quite acceptable, but we can also provide a trained team of swab collectors, led by a registered nurse or paramedic, to attend your workplace, and swiftly collect and dispatch samples to our partner laboratories, where results will be ready within 24 hours once the sample is received. This cycle can be repeated on a regular or ad hoc basis as required by your business. 

Long shelf-life pre-paid kits, ready for use, with all carriage costs included and rapid turnaround of results (again within 24 hours of receipt) are also available for purchase to be kept in-house and used as and when they are required.