The valuable role private, home-based testing can play in reducing the transmission of COVID-19, whilst enabling the UK Businesses to keep moving amidst a second wave of the pandemic.
With the global death toll having passed 1.2 million and the UK recently seeing 23,000 more confirmed COVID cases a day as a result of a computer glitch at Public Health England, the government has declared a second national lockdown, which many expect to be extended to the new year.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously been resolute in his opinion that doing so would be an economic disaster and completely wrong for the country, thereby confirming the seriousness of the situation we now find ourselves in. While the decision taken is the right one, it is another hammer blow to the UK’s business community, many of whom have had to rely on government support schemes to cover employee wages or help stem cashflow issues.
Currently two-thirds of all businesses currently trading across the UK have a low to severe risk of insolvency, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and many industries are experiencing redundancy increases, which almost doubled over the three months to August.
Promises, promises, promises
Yet despite this adversity, businesses continue to overcome many of the challenges presented by the pandemic. Overwhelming the main one has been to keep customers and employees safe. Key to this has been the partnership between the NHS on the frontline and those companies working within the home diagnostics market, that have been providing essential testing services. Austerity cuts to NHS services and local councils’ public health departments, combined with a government focus on combatting a future flu pandemic, rather than a SARS-like virus, meant that we were not prepared for the coronavirus, and therefore had limited testing capacity.
The government hopes to rectify this with its proposed covid-19 mass testing scheme, Operation Moonshot. This programme will increase testing from the current hundreds of thousands of tests each day to 10 million a day by early 2021, which the Prime Minister has said will allow people to lead more normal lives, without the need for social distancing. Testing this many people every day is an ambitious step, given the current struggle to deliver a few hundred thousand. Also despite government claims that these rapid antigen tests (also called lateral flow test) will be delivered within 15 minutes, they still need to be read by a healthcare professional and the results confirmed by a PCR test. This is only adding to the extra workload in testing for suspected cases whilst not accounting for the thousands of false negatives that the mass deployment of such technologies would have in the population.
The role of private screening and diagnostic services
Unfortunately, researchers from the University College London (UCL) have found nearly 90% of people testing positive for the virus are asymptomatic. Without any typical warning signs such as a persistent cough or temperature, infected employees are unable to procure a test and therefore are free to enter the workplace, substantially raising the risk of others becoming similarly afflicted. This situation can quickly escalate, severely impacting an employees’ health, wellbeing, and productivity. For the majority of employers working with private screening and diagnostic service providers will be the most reliable way to fulfil their duty of care to employees. Having started 35 years ago with the advent of over-the-counter pregnancy tests, the industry has grown quickly to encompass health, fitness, and DNA testing. Home testing has been a growth market for many years, so with the advent of the coronavirus, it was a simple process for companies to pivot their operations and network of healthcare professionals, private practices and laboratories, towards combatting its spread and reducing the pressure on the NHS.
What every employer needs to know
Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General recently started that Affordable fast tests are a game-changer for business, enabling more firms to stay open and operate normally. That being said, employers looking to go private should bear in mind that standards can vary between providers, so should look to procure from registered healthcare providers that are regulated by the Care Quality Commission; the independent regulator and inspector of all health and social care services in England.
Remember that ongoing testing will play a vital role within many organisations as part of the return to work strategy minimising business disruption by identifying whether employees have been in contact with COVID-19 positive individuals. The same PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests used by the NHS typically range between £50-£100 and results should typically be expected to be received within 24-72 hours. They are considered the operational gold standard for detecting COVID-19 disease in clinical practice with a 99.8% accuracy rate. While other tests do exist and may even have a faster turnaround time, they are far more likely to offer “false positive” and false negative test results. The false positive rate refers to the number of people who are not infected but get positive results, as a proportion of all the people tested who really do not have the virus. Misdiagnosis of employees can lead to their isolation, potentially resulting in a loss income, psychological damage due to fears of infecting others and stigmatisation from colleagues and families. A false negative result on the other hand will mean that staff are left fully exposed to the virus and at risk of infection. Such inaccuracies totally undermine any efforts to contain the pandemic.
With the majority of companies wanting to safeguard their workforce and minimise any damage to their staff and operations, the additional expense of private testing over the short to medium term will be a necessary one. The government is working hard to provide a timely solution but until it does, the private screening and diagnostic services sector will be at the forefront of ensuring workplaces are COVID secure.