The rapid testing programme has been extended
On 28 March 2021, the Government announced that its COVID-19 rapid testing programme would be extended to allow more businesses to make use of it if their employees cannot work from home. The rapid testing programme is a government initiative introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19 within businesses. It is conducted using lateral flow tests, through which a positive test result can be seen within 30 minutes.
In a recent development, employers with more than 10 employees who cannot offer rapid testing on-site could register to have staff test themselves at home – the deadline for registering was 12 April 2021. The test kits have been available since 6 April 2021 and will be free until 30 June 2021.
The aim of this programme, both in its original and extended form, is to enable as many employers as possible to test their staff and spot asymptomatic cases of the virus. Ultimately, the end goal is to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace. So far, the original version of the programme (whereby employers are given rapid test kits for mass testing on-site) has seen over 60,000 employers register before its end of March 2021 deadline.
Rapid testing is not a statutory requirement and it is ultimately up to employers to implement it. That said, unless employers can clearly justify why mandatory testing is necessary, it should remain optional. Enforcing it, and disciplining employees who refuse to take a test, could lead to costly constructive dismissal claims, unless such a policy is justifiable.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that there will be a clause in employee contracts allowing employers to require them to be tested. Therefore, to enforce it is likely to be an unlawful change to an employee’s contract terms and conditions. Employers can therefore encourage their employees to take the opportunity to use the home kits (or be tested on-site) when offered to them.
To facilitate mass testing and aid its success, it is advised that employers implement a COVID-19 testing policy which employees should have easy access to. The policy should set out why testing is encouraged, who will manage the process in case any issues arise (perhaps a member of HR or line managers), as well as details on how results will be processed once the employee informs the employers of it.
Importantly, if home testing is implemented, it is important that employees are trained on how to properly take the tests – for example, through an informative video explaining the process, or an infographics/leaflet. Rapid testing should not replace any COVID-secure measures in place on-site, such as social distancing and sanitising.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that from 9 April 2021 everyone in England, including those without symptoms, will be able to take a free rapid tests twice a week.
The news comes as good progress on the vaccine programme continues to be made, and regular rapid testing has become even more important to ensure those efforts are not wasted, free rapid tests will now be offered to everyone across England. Whilst this does not disrupt employers choosing to implement testing in the workplace, at home or on-site, employees will now continue to have access to free rapid test kits after June 2021.