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COVID uncertainty shows why workplace testing must be a priority recommendation for the CBI and FSB

By Alex Sheppard of Vatic.



After a prolonged period of uncertainty, the priority for every business must be stopping Covid-positive employees from entering the workplace.  It’s time for leading business representatives to push harder for workplace testing.

In the next few months post-pandemic Britain is going to take shape. Plan B restrictions will be lifted; chief medical officers, HR, occupational health, safety health and environment officers are once again having to re-assess working structures and safety procedures.

As the WHO asserts we can expect many more mutations and waves of COVID perhaps every three to four months – others predict a steadier state ahead, the government is showing signs of transferring responsibility for managing the pandemic.

The future of free testing is now highly uncertain. Businesses will have to decide a budget for effective testing to avoid outbreaks and isolation amongst the workforce.

Business leaders who seize healthcare opportunities may start to embrace the idea of preventative testing in the workplace. Matt Hancock, ex health secretary said he hoped the pandemic would end the British habit of ‘soldering on’ when ill.

Alex Sheppard, Vatic

Geographically there are inequalities. As Omicron spreads across large parts of the world and governments and health officials are tightening restrictions, a further cluster attempt to avoid measures altogether.

Uncertainty is arguably the biggest barrier to growth and prosperity, and the lack of a clear roadmap throughout the pandemic continues to cost many companies dearly.

Hospitality and travel businesses are being pushed back to the brink. Major corporations that have spent six months trying to nudge staff back into the office have had to promptly send them home again.

The ‘hybrid office’ has been one of the most talked-about business trends of 2021, but for most organisations, it remains a pipedream because of the sheer impossibility of attempting to form coherent long-term flexible working strategies.

The pandemic is not going to suddenly vanish overnight. There will be new variants of what is now a permanently endemic disease, continuing strains on the health service, and there will be another wave of infections next winter (sooner, in the Southern Hemisphere) and the winter after that.

It seems plain that a clearer and more consistent approach is needed to allow us to live with Covid more effectively – an approach that prioritises stability, continuity and certainty, rather than the current rollercoaster of a few good months followed by a few really bad ones.

In short, we need to make ongoing workplace testing a top business priority and one that is led by CBI and FSB. Employers find themselves in a difficult position, balancing a number of priorities against their legal duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees. However the businesses who lead the drive towards ongoing testing will be better placed to avoid a repeat of the ‘great resignation’ and be recognised as decisive, nurturing employers.

The need for corporates to lead on daily testing regimes is becoming more and more obvious. As Bret Taylor, CEO of Salesforce, put it in a recent tweet, “Rapid testing is the way we can continue to reopen and reconnect safely in the face of variants like Omicron. I think the most effective economic stimulus would be free rapid testing for everyone so every business can incorporate same-day testing into safety protocols at no cost.”

The question of who pays for the testing is a contentious issue. However, when we polled business leaders for their views on the subject, four out of five felt that efficient in-house testing would be a worthwhile financial investment for their company.

Testing technology is continuing to improve

One of the most overlooked aspects of the world’s technological response to the pandemic is the advancement in testing that has been made during the past two years. It’s no longer a question of choosing between invasive and unpleasant PCR tests or slightly less unpleasant but markedly less reliable lateral flow tests (although not every Government has got this memo).

Over the last few years lateral flow testing has evolved significantly. Some can tell you if you are currently infectious with the virus – the single most important variable when trying to keep society open – within fifteen minutes.

These tests are more affordable and easier to administer than their predecessors. They can even be self-administered from home before employees venture out on their daily commute.

The continued noise surrounding the vaccines and the advancements in anti-inflammatory drugs and other Covid treatments is entirely justified – these are human achievements worth shouting about. But somewhere along the line, the message around testing improvements has been lost.

When business leaders think about the idea of introducing ongoing workplace testing, too many of them still conjure up images of resource-heavy public Covid testing centres, despite the reality looking quite different.

What if employees won’t come back?

In July, while ‘freedom day’ was being widely celebrated in the UK, a Vatic poll revealed that 81 per cent of employees voiced concerns about contacting Covid from work colleagues.

A similar percentage claimed that workplace safety measures would affect whether or not they stayed with their current employer. And 56 per cent felt efficient in-house COVID testing would positively affect their mental health.

These figures reflect the fact that most people don’t have the luxury of working from home. By coming into work, they’re taking a risk, and as the pandemic continues, they’re far more likely to look for employers that take their safety at work seriously.

Further, with each new ‘work from home’ order, desk-based professionals grow more apprehensive about the viability of being in the office. We’re social creatures, and many people would rather spend their time in person with colleagues. Still, after two years, it’s understandable that employees are pushing back and questioning why they can’t just work from home permanently.

We can’t respond like it’s the flu

While we must learn to live with the virus, we cannot make the mistake we made at the start of the pandemic and treat COVID-19 in exactly the same way we treat flu.

It was partly because we only planned for an influenza pandemic that our initial response to a coronavirus pandemic was so muddled. These two viruses are vastly different in reality; the Omicron variant is much more infectious, as we are seeing through the intolerable level of absence we are seeing in industry.

This is beyond what we see with typical cold/ flu seasons, and we can’t simply assume that COVID-19 will suddenly get less infectious. If anything, its mutation trajectory suggests it is only getting more infectious as it adapts better to humans, though of course immunity is rising to potentially combat this.

That being said, our base assumption simply has to be that COVID-19 is not just “flu 2.0” yet and realistically, while we can find ways of living this, we must mitigate the disruption it causes through the numbers of people off work sick with it at any one time in the winter season.

The best means of tackling this right now is a combination of vaccination booster encouragement and regular disease screening through testing to mitigate the risk of significant spread within a workplace environment. In fact, more avid test adopters may even generate commercial advantage over competitors that believe that they can weather the effects of absenteeism through COVID-19 infection.

Proactivity here, will generate cultural and commercial advantage for the most forward thinking businesses. Now, workplace biosecurity for our people from infection could become just as vital, and necessary as cybersecurity for our data from hacking.

A long-term strategy

From parliamentary unease to wilful rule-breaking to all-out protests on the streets, the level of discontent around current Covid-mitigation strategies is increasingly evident worldwide.

Testing remains the most viable means of keeping society open and public uproar at bay. Given that the vast majority of adults have jobs, the workplace is the obvious channel for carrying out ongoing testing.

After a prolonged period of intolerable uncertainty, the CBI, FSB and other representatives of the business community should make corporate adoption of testing regimes their top priority.

In 2022, the priority for every business – and indeed, for the general public – must be stopping Covid-positive employees from setting foot in the workplace, so that everyone can carry on their daily lives without fear or disruption.

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