There’s a critical role for employers to play in helping to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus – and helping to prevent a return to lockdown.
In previous columns I’ve discussed the important actions that employers can take in responding to COVID-19. This has included advice in areas such as health and safety in the workplace, risk stratification and maintaining productivity. As employees return to work in increasing numbers, many employers have made suitable workplace adjustments in terms of social distancing, enhanced cleaning regimes, PPE and other appropriate measures. While this is satisfactory in the short term, it is merely reactive; the situation may change, and deteriorate. If a new source of infection were to arrive, how quickly could you identify this? This is where a robust approach to testing system becomes invaluable.
A recent report ‘Pressing go on mass testing’ argued that a ‘step change’ is required if mass testing is to be fully effective and support the reopening of our economy. Employers are ideally situated to support this. They manage environments with significant potential to spread the virus, and with that comes responsibility. Political leaders and the media have been quick to frame the COVID response as a ‘war’. But when it comes to testing and preparing, if we’re to have any chance of pushing back the virus and getting our economy back on its feet, we need a mass mobilisation of a kind we haven’t seen in decades.
It’s tin hat time. HR Directors need to quickly consider how best they can help their organisation and the nation to cope.
Here are four considerations:
Flu, COVID and the coming winter
The onset of winter threatens a flu outbreak, taking place alongside a possible second wave of COVID and a potential return to lockdown. A severe flu winter could impair the NHS test and trace system, making it far harder to monitor Covid-19 cases and contain further outbreaks.
In the UK, deaths from flu and pneumonia are five times higher than deaths from Covid-19 infection. With the number of people reporting flu-like symptoms set to triple over the winter, it’s more important than ever to arrange flu vaccinations for any colleague who wants this but especially for those who need it, principally those in the 50+ age group. This could also ease pressure on NHS – which already faces a huge backlog of work as a result of COVID.
Reacting to suspected COVID cases
Employers should keep staff appraised on the NHS’s test and trace procedure and develop an internal protocol for employees to follow, based on the government’s guidance.
The protocol should require those who think they are suffering from symptoms to self-isolate immediately; inform the NHS as soon as possible; obtain a test to find out if they have coronavirus; and where possible, write down their recent close contacts whilst they await the results in case the test comes back positive.
Testing should be part of your business’s risk stratification. This requires both a clinically informed understanding of the COVID-19 threat, and appropriate data about the people who interact with your services.
Accurate on-the-spot antigen tests, once approved for use, will alert organisations as to employees who pose an immediate risk. Reliable mass-market immunity tests will also make it possible to identify those who have already developed coronavirus antibodies, and thus could be deployed into higher-risk operations and occupations.
It’s important that any decisions a business might make when using testing to manage risk are fair, based on the latest official guidance and, of course, legal. Care should be taken to avoid any perceived prejudice in an employee’s treatment.
Finally, your business should have a plan in place for when immunity testing becomes scalable. Work with OH providers and your internal team to be ready and to determine this means for your business. Your existing system for recording HR data may need to be overhauled in preparation.
Get the right clinical support. I’ve been working closely with a number of major employers to put in place both antigen (diagnostic) and antibody (immunity) testing in both office and manufacturing environments. The latter has included an organisation that has switched to manufacturing PPE for the NHS, and the testing has helped to minimise the impact on production when suspected cases have developed. Other organisations have offered antibody testing as a staff benefit and we have seen high take-up rates, especially for those with vulnerable members in their household. Occupational health has an important role to play in helping business leaders make the right decisions about both controlling risk and improving population health.