Opinion piece by Alastair Hamilton CBE, Advisor to Workforce Testing Programme

The past year has brought unprecedented pressure and challenge across Northern Ireland, which has been felt in every walk of life. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has required extreme measures in order to protect everyone in our community and we have all experienced the impact of those measures in our daily lives. We all long for the return of some kind of normality – to be able to get on with our lives and work.

The economy has suffered very badly, with temporary closures, redundancies, financial losses, increased borrowing and an overall unprecedented reduction in economic output.

As we emerge from our latest lockdown and look to a better future, the business community will have a vital role to play in restoring hope and opportunity, as well as restoring the economic balance that will facilitate the rebuilding of our fragile public services. Throughout my business and public sector experience, I have always been impressed with the resilience of the business community in Northern Ireland and I firmly believe that we will bounce back from this challenging time with the same resilience and determination to rebuild for the future.

Business employers have already shown the importance of taking steps to ensure a safe working environment for staff and customers. In this next stage of recovery, the businesses will also play a vital part in keeping the ongoing COVID-19 threat at bay, ensuring business continuity and helping to maintain a full workforce.

There is no doubt that the roll out of the vaccination programme has been a tremendous success, but a small proportion of those who are fully vaccinated can still carry and transmit the virus to others.

We are all aware of the existing, well-established, measures in place for people who are displaying COVID-19 symptoms, with PCR tests available at specific testing sites dotted around NI. However, it is well known now that around a third of people who contract COVID-19 don’t feel or show any symptoms.

To address this risk in the workplace, especially as business open up again and more staff work together in shared spaces, a new support service has been developed called Workforce Testing. Enabled by the NI Executive, we are now able to offer rapid testing kits using Lateral Flow Devices, to all business in Northern Ireland.

Rapid testing has been specifically developed to identify those who may be carrying the virus but not showing symptoms, and by testing regularly, this can be identified and resolved at a very early stage before the virus in unknowingly spread about in the workplace.

We have developed a range of channels to enable employers to engage with this important measure. The larger businesses will be able to set up and run Assisted Testing Sites, where they will be able to oversee the regular (twice weekly) workforce testing and upload the results so that employees are notified. I would encourage all of our large businesses to set up a testing site as this is the best way to manage the effective and efficient testing of large employee groups with proper monitoring of take-up rates and results management.

Smaller businesses will be able to access tests for distribution to their employees who will conduct the tests at home while managed within the parameters of the organisation’s workforce testing policy. We are also working on other shared test sites within the community.  

By participating in Workforce Testing, employers are protecting their workforces and their families, protecting customers, promoting consumer and supplier confidence, and helping to build economic recovery.

To date, over 400 businesses in NI have already contacted Department of Health to register an interest in the programme. This is a good start, but we need to deploy the range of testing measures as widely and as regularly as possible. We are extremely fortunate in Northern Ireland to be in a position to have access to a steady supply of effective rapid testing kits. I would urge you as business leaders to make full use of this provision and use it as a support to develop your growth plans for the future

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