Pingdemic test-to-return used by employers to fight self-isolation

Employers have been left reeling by a record number of NHS COVID-19 app alerts asking people to self-isolate.

Between the 8 and 15 July this year, 618,903 isolation notifications were sent to people across England and Wales, creating critical staff shortages in businesses including Iceland, BP and Greene King.

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Concerned about survival, some sectors previously deemed “essential” to supplying and supporting the country have appealed to government to consider exemptions to isolation, akin to those granted to the NHS.

Instead of being forced to close, some have also introduced their own workarounds of the guidance.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme Andrew Selley, chief executive of food wholesaler Bidfood said any of his firm’s workers pinged by the NHS app have been advised to take a PCR test and continue working following a negative result instead of isolating.

Despite the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng advising against this approach, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, pointed out that the NHS app alerts are merely guidance.

Therefore employers who do follow them are not breaking the law.

Speaking to HR magazine, Palmer said: “Where employers decide to take this course of action, they should do so very carefully after assessing the safety risks,

“It would be highly advisable to continue with, or improve, robust mitigation measures. This could include an initial negative PCR test and daily lateral flow tests to prevent your employees from passing on COVID, if they do get it, to their colleagues and the public.

“Wider mitigating measures should be maintained, such as extra deep cleans,” she added.

Alex Hind, CEO of health benefits company Heka, said that wider consequences should also be considered if adopting the test-to-return approach.

“Outside the obvious COVID risk, there is a very high likelihood that the employee feels that you do not have their best interests at heart,” Hind warned.

“The most important thing is making sure that each employee feels valued.”

Vicky Walker, HR director at Westfield Health, noted it is important employers don’t underestimate the new toll self-isolation could take on employees.

She told HR magazine: “When many businesses were closed, self-isolation didn’t seem as hard. Now, those who’ve been pinged and must self-isolate really feel like they’re missing out, which can take its toll on mental health – particularly on top of an already difficult year.”

Like Hind, Walker said it would be important for employers to show they care at this time.

“To help people stay at their happy, productive best, HR teams must proactively engage with employees who have to self-isolate,” she said.

“This could include keeping some of the measures in place throughout the last year, such as outreach phone calls and virtual social clubs, […] Just because someone can’t be in the room, they should still be able to feel like they’re part of the discussion.”

Palmer added that employers should not rule out adjustments to allow employees work from home if they can.

She said: “Operational environments should make sure that the workplace continues to be COVID secure despite any government relaxation on face masks and social distancing to reduce any pings caused between colleagues, or with the public during working time.”

Some employers, she said, may also be able to allow employees to pause the NHS app when at work, for example if staff work behind a fixed screen fully protected from other people.

Pressure from affected industries has caused government to backtrack on initial plans not to make businesses outside the NHS exempt from isolation rules.

From 22 July, businesses in food production and supply, essential transport, defence and energy supply are now among those who can apply to relevant government bodies for exemption.

According to figures extrapolated to Office for National Statistics (ONS) populations, the consumer and retail industry has been the hardest hit by COVID cases and staff isolating in July with 18,758 confirmed COVID cases.

FirstCare director Stephen May, said“This ‘self-isolation exemption green list’ will alleviate some of that pressure. The organisations that manage the situation best will understand the impact of every staff absence – the impact on the individual and the organisation.

“It’s only with this level of granular detail, can individuals be supported, and operational performance protected.”