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CBI BOSS: Government must continue paying for free Covid tests for firms

Workplace testing will need to become commonplace and the Government must continue paying for free Covid kits for companies, says CBI BOSS

Lord Bilimoria is president of the CBI and the founder of Cobra Beer

Sixteen million people in the UK will have now received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. That’s an astonishing achievement from a standing start and gives real hope that the worst of this pandemic will begin to recede.

The prospect of protection for our elderly and most vulnerable is something we can all be thankful for and the Government, alongside our tireless army of vaccinators and health workers, deserve immense credit.

While the health impact of the vaccine is clear, it also can’t come quickly enough for the many firms and jobs still under severe pressure. Vast swathes of the UK economy have been laid low, with some sectors particularly hard-hit. 

While the vaccine offers huge hope, it isn’t the whole picture when it comes to getting the economy firing again. 

Workplace testing will need to become commonplace. It will be a key part of our armoury for the economic restart – and the Prime Minister can show a real statement of intent on this when he publishes his roadmap out of lockdown tomorrow.

By putting workplace testing regimes in place now, more firms can hit the ground running when it’s safe to reopen. Regular testing using rapid lateral flow devices, particularly those workplaces where staff are in closer proximity – can help protect staff, catch asymptomatic cases quicker and give consumers confidence.

We have been hampered throughout the crisis by not knowing enough about who is carrying the virus when showing no symptoms.

Knowledge is power – the more we learn through greater workplace testing means normality sooner rather than later; safer returns to offices, pubs and warehouses; our city centres humming once again, attending live events and yes, even rebooting those holiday plans.

It will be a combination of effective vaccines and more testing that will lead us away from rising infections and damaging lockdowns. That’s why building an effective workplace testing infrastructure – and culture – will be critical to managing Covid-19 in the future.

'Workplace testing will need to become commonplace' says Lord Bilimoria

‘Workplace testing will need to become commonplace’ says Lord Bilimoria

For some companies, regular lateral flow testing has already been an effective first line of defence to identify asymptomatic cases – later confirmed by PCR tests. Those staff members have then safely self-isolated, preventing further spread among the work force.

From experience, I know the benefits of workplace testing. At Molson Coors, Joint Venture partners of Cobra Beer, regular lateral flow testing has been in place at two sites.

Let me be clear: our people and their safety comes first, and those that can work from home have been doing so since March. But for those that can’t, lateral flow tests have been crucial in keeping operations going.

However, recent CBI research has shown that Molson Coors is in the minority, with 87 per cent of firms not undertaking workplace testing. Not everyone will be able to do it. But for those firms thinking about it, I say ‘if you can, you should’.

Many businesses cited a lack of expertise and unclear guidance or operational, logistical and regulatory complexity for not testing. We desperately need the take-up of numbers to increase, and those barriers to be overcome, to get the best possible start on economic recovery.

There is clearly an opportunity for business and government to work together, as they have done so impressively throughout the pandemic. Key to that is improving guidance and sharing best practice.

The Government has offered a helping hand to businesses of more than 50 employees to be part of a testing programme, while local authorities are tasked with reaching smaller businesses. 

That is currently due to finish at the end of March when much of the economy will still be facing restrictions and before workplace testing has really taken off. Government support will have to continue beyond that point and for some months to come.

The Covid-19 crisis has been long and taken too many lives and livelihoods. From vaccines to workplace testing, we must use every tool at our disposal to protect lives, jobs and livelihoods from further risk. With support from government, business must once more step into the breach.

Lord Bilimoria is president of the CBI and the founder of Cobra Beer.

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