New guidance published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) provides key information for employers on coronavirus (COVID-19) testing and contact tracing.

Amid warnings from scientists of a second wave of the pandemic, many employers are increasingly testing staff as a means of protecting their workforce.

Employer-led testing initiatives are not mandatory. However, where an employer does choose to operate its own internal testing programme for staff, they should adhere to the obligations and principles set out within the DHSC guidance.

The Guidance

The guidance contains information on available testing, and considerations for employers who may wish to set up their own internal contact tracing systems. The guidance emphasises that the NHS Test and Trace system should not be used for asymptomatic staff, and encourages employers to look to private testing alternatives instead. 

If your organisation is considering setting up its own internal contact tracing system, the following sections of the guidance will be of particular relevance:

  • Before deciding to test staff - employers should consider who will be tested (for example, whether contractors will be included alongside employed staff), how frequently testing will take place, how to respond to staff who refuse to be tested, and how health information will be processed.  
  • Communicating the intention to test staff - the guidance strongly advises employers to consult with staff associations or unions before implementing any organisational testing policy. Employers should be transparent in all staff communications around testing, including in respect of why the testing programme is being established, whether alongside or instead of the national scheme. Staff should be told whether testing is voluntary or mandatory, what the consequences would be if an individual refused to be tested, and what the next steps would be for staff once a result is received. Employers are also reminded of their data protection obligations, in particular the need to make all staff aware of how their personal data will be processed.
  • Contact tracing staff - Employers can voluntarily introduce internal contact tracing systems alongside the NHS Test and Trace service. This is not a mandatory requirement. In the event where an employee is identified by an internal contact tracing system, but not by NHS Test and Trace, they will not qualify for Statutory Sick Pay. The guidance indicates that in these circumstances, staff should be permitted to work from home to self-isolate if possible, or if this is not possible, the employer 'may have to' keep affected staff on full pay unless their employment contract provides otherwise.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.