Extended workplace Covid testing regime in Northern Ireland

Out-Law News | 22 Apr 2021 | 8:17 am | 2 min. read

Employers in Northern Ireland operating in sectors where staff cannot work from home are being given an opportunity to participate in a workplace asymptomatic testing programme designed to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The initiative, led by the Northern Ireland Department of Health, had initially been open to employers with 50 employees or more active in select sectors of the economy, such as agri-food, manufacturing, essential retail, transport and distribution, and construction. However, the department confirmed on 1 April that the programme would be extended to include “all private sector employers with more than 50 employees who cannot work from home”.

Robin Swann, Northern Ireland health minister, also confirmed that the department is “developing proposals to expand the programme to all private sector companies of any size” and that he hoped to announce further details of this “shortly”.

Participation in the workplace asymptomatic testing programme is not mandatory for employers, but the department said that there are a number of benefits that employers can derive from being involved.

It said: “Workforce testing can help to protect staff, helping to give confidence to those who continue to come into work, as well as improving the overall resilience of business operations. It will also provide additional assurance to customers or the general public who are interacting with staff in person.”

Belfast-based employment law expert Paul Gillen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said: “The purpose of asymptomatic testing is to identify individuals who are positive for Covid-19 but do not present symptoms. The workplace testing programme aims to minimise the spread of infection among those who cannot work from home. The programme is only available to asymptomatic employees. Any employees displaying symptoms of Covid-19 should leave their workplace or site immediately and follow the national guidance for getting tested.”

“Asymptomatic testing is carried out using lateral flow tests (LFTs) which are not as sensitive as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. A negative result from an LFT does not rule out that an employee has the virus. It is therefore essential that employees continue to adhere to government guidelines and social distancing measures. Testing twice a week increases the detection rate of LFTs,” he said.

“Individuals with positive LFTs will have to isolate immediately along with their households. They should then book a PCR test at their closest test site to confirm the result. Community contact tracing will be initiated on confirmation of a positive result from the PCR test,” Gillen said.

The Department has set criteria to be applied to prioritise private sector organisations’ involvement in the testing regime. The principles include: organisations with more than 50 employees who cannot work from home; incidence of high prevalence; previous incidence of surge/outbreaks; and workplaces where social distancing is difficult and which are therefore at higher risk of exposure.

In addition, to access workforce testing, organisations will need to demonstrate that they are registered with Companies House and are trading. They will also need to propose a clear purpose and plan for testing in line with the workforce blueprints provided by the department. This is in addition to providing a Covid-19 safe working environment. Employers will have to prove they have the resources, capacity and capability to deliver the testing site according to the standard operating procedure. Organisations will also have to have engaged with their workforce and trade unions on the issue of workplace testing.

Gillen said: “Approved organisations will sign a contract with the Department. Under the terms of the contract, the organisation will set up testing environments in accordance with standard operating procedure guidelines. Tests must be supervised by employer-provided staff who will be given suitable training via an online platform. Employees will be tested under a timetable set by the employer; however testing will not be compulsory. Any sample materials need to be treated as clinical waste and disposal must take place at the site of testing in line with local requirements. Under current legislation, employers do not receive results directly.”

“Importantly, the Department will provide indemnity to approved organisations subject to confirmation that their arrangements are in line with the standard operating procedure. As we look towards a return to work this is certainly something that employers should consider.,” he said.

Co-written by Alison Forsythe of Pinsent Masons.