COVID test kits will be made available free of charge to small firms as well as larger companies, in a move aimed at giving employers and staff peace of mind.
All businesses in England, including those with fewer than 50 employees, will be able to sign up to the government’s free COVID-19 workplace testing programme.
They have until 31 March to register for the scheme, which remains free until the end of June.
“Regular workplace testing is a vital part of our route back to normal life, which is why I’m very pleased that we’re now expanding our offer of free workplace testing to businesses of all sizes, including SMEs,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
“These rapid tests will allow positive cases of COVID-19 to be caught quickly, which is crucial in helping businesses protect their workplaces and employees as we cautiously lift restrictions.”
Ministers believe regular testing could be the difference between a workplace being able to stay open and operational, or needing to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Welcoming the move, Andrew Middlemiss of Odyssey Systems – a small firm with 28 staff in Stockton-on-Tees – said: “Our staff work remotely whenever possible. But several roles require a presence in the office or, in the case of installing equipment or delivering remote working solutions, our engineers must attend a client’s premises.
“The lateral flow tests offer peace of mind to employees and engineers required to visit clients’ premises, and being able to access these tests for free will make a huge difference to our business.”
So far more than 3,500 businesses have signed up to offer workplace testing programmes and over 14,000 have registered their interest in offering rapid testing, with many already carrying them out.
Urging firms to sign up, Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said: “Around one in three people who have coronavirus never show any symptoms but may still be infectious. This means they could be spreading the virus without realising it.
“Rapid testing can help detect asymptomatic cases quickly, preventing the virus from entering workplaces and stopping outbreaks before they occur.”
She urged people to take a test if they are offered it and said the measures would be a “vital tool”.
The Federation of Small Businesses national chair Mike Cheery said workplace testing would be “fundamental” to bringing the pandemic under control.
“It’s vital that [small businesses] are given all the support they need to do so successfully as they focus on staying afloat in extremely changing circumstances. We’d encourage all small firms that would benefit from a testing facility to apply as swiftly as they can,” he said.
The CBI’s Matthew Fell added the decision was “good news” and would help firms to stay open.
The government has said the expansion of asymptomatic testing is already well under way in larger companies for those who need to leave home for work.
Both private and public sector employers have signed up to provide rapid testing at asymptomatic testing sites, along with a self-test option for those that cannot access a workplace testing site.
This includes the UK’s largest employer – the NHS, as well as those working in adult social care, education staff and a wide range of other sectors.