Testing Times

Back in the Summer I wrote a blog about the problems we were starting to see on staff absences, and how the testing and isolation notifications (the “pingdemic”) we were seeing would cause real problems in the supply chain and stores if not addressed. Sadly, I was proven right to a large extent and we sleepwalked into a Summer that was far harder than it needed to be.

I can see another challenge now, related to the same issue of working out who has Covid-19 (whichever variant) and therefore who should and shouldn’t be coming to work. I’m seeing government announcements that are contradictory and I’m worried that consciously or unconsciously we’re heading towards home lateral flow testing being restricted or unavailable for local shops colleagues and many other people and businesses we trade with.

Let’s start last week (4 January) with the Prime Minister’s announcement that 100,000 key workers in supply chains would be given daily free lateral flow tests. Um, why would you need to announce that if everyone can get a free lateral flow test to do at home anyway? Maybe I’m a born cynic, maybe I’ve spent too much time working with government, but this set alarm bells ringing for me. 

Then more clarity: these 100,000 workers would be identified starting with those who work for companies that were involved in the workplace testing scheme last year. This involves big food production and distribution facilities setting up on-site testing for their staff, and this was a really good scheme … at a time when home testing wasn’t widely available. It was also only ever a plan for big companies and more importantly for big sites. Supermarkets can’t dedicate space and people to testing and can’t process the number of tests to make it worthwhile, never mind convenience stores.  For our colleagues community testing at walk-in sites, or even better home lateral flow testing, was and is the only feasible way to get regular asymptomatic testing and thus ensure that if you’re well you’re at work, and if you’ve got Covid and you’re potentially infectious, you’re not. 

Fast forward to last weekend, specifically speculation in the Sunday Times of 9 January, and elsewhere, that free home lateral flow tests were going to be taken away. Then today, denials from Michael Gove that this is indeed the plan, but worded in such a way that he doesn’t actually confirm that everyone will continue to access free home lateral flow tests. 

Why do I care about all this? Well, firstly I should say that at some point free home lateral flow tests will be phased out and I hope they are because that will be a sign that the pandemic is becoming a far less threatening and intrusive part of our lives. But of course I want local shop colleagues to be able to use these tests to find out if they have Covid so we can minimise outbreaks among store teams which lead to operational problems – at their most extreme stores having to cut back hours or restrict services.

There’s another reason why this bothers me though: it’s an uncomfortable reminder of the government’s tendency to see a problem as being solved by helping a handful of big businesses. We’ve battled this throughout the pandemic, with some success and with help from some brilliant ministers and officials who have thought small first and recognised how important local shops are. But I’m worried that the government will point to the workplace testing scheme and tick the box, say “job done” and claim that food supply has been protected. That would be a complacent and insufficient response. As long as asymptomatic testing is needed, it’s needed for everyone, at very least for all those working in essential businesses like convenience stores.

Image credit: comedy_nose (Flickr)

This entry was posted by Chris on Mon, 10/01/2022 - 12:55