Dr Mark Ali explains how you can strategise your return to work to safeguard health and comply with legal and clinical best practice
When I advise businesses on their strategic return to work policies, I always consider the specific conditions that each business works within. It is important that your strategy is adapted to your business needs.
In the housing industry we can expect to see many unique sector characteristics; we are likely to see numbers of people coming together from time to time in different locations, or people visiting several different locations and potentially interfacing with large numbers of different people. The housing landscape is dynamic and flexible and therefore your back to work strategy should recognise this.
Organisations have a legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe return to work programme for employees. This involves having a robust clinical testing programme, underpinned by PHE principles. The importance of an effective app for test and trace in training environments is vital as the virus explodes in clusters. It is extremely important that companies employing trainers, or inviting them into their businesses, set out a policy and communicate that policy in clear terms.
Businesses must also understand that they have legal responsibilities under Public Health England’s (PHE) guidance. The government has already released guidelines for “covid-safe workplaces” and any return to work strategy must follow these. In addition, it is crucial for organisations to develop clinical strategies and protocols to safeguard employees, customers and clients on return to activity. Each organisation must have robust systems in place to monitor and respond to infection when it occurs. It is likely there will be a second (or even third) wave of infections and companies must be prepared to manage this.
In addition to the NHS’ own track and trace app, corporations should consider bringing in their own sophisticated tracking apps. We use a private reliable dynamic solution that allows companies to quickly react in case of infection, without the need to lock down the whole office or building. This app use standalone wearable technology (rather than a smart phone) and has improved indoor accuracy which stays attached to the employee all day. Information is stored locally creating a company-wide tracking system. It can be given to visitors and is highly accurate. Concerns about data collection are accounted for: the data is completely anonymous and decentralised. No medical data is stored. Overall, it gives a rapid method to identify significant contacts rapidly (many of which an individual may not recall) enabling effective tracing and localised action, preventing lockdowns of whole buildings.
Many employees are not currently eligible for NHS testing. Businesses should consider using private testing that follows government guidelines. The testing programme should be robust with protocols that are bespoke to the specific organisation and different groups within the company depending on exposure risk. Some may wish to swab high risk employees at a regular frequency, irrespective of symptoms, as it is well recognised that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread are great drivers of the disease. Imperial College analysis suggests that testing healthcare workers once weekly would reduce transmission by a further 16-23% on top of self-isolation based on symptoms. The Premier League, for example, aims to reassure players by testing with swabs twice a week. Care homes in the USA now swab staff twice weekly. Alternatively, for employees without customer-facing roles and lower risk activities, employers may choose to swab only in response to symptoms. This is in line with current practice for key workers. Employers may also consider swabbing unwell household contacts to minimise work lost due to quarantining.
The government has already started to release guidelines for “covid-safe workplaces” and any return to work strategy must follow these. In addition, it is crucial for organisations to develop clinical strategies and protocols to safeguard employees, customers and clients on return to activity. Each organisation must have robust systems in place to monitor and respond to infection when it occurs. It is likely there will be a second (or even third) wave of infections and companies must be prepared to manage this.
Dr Mark Ali is medical director of the Private Harley Street Clinic, and cardiothoracic surgeon. Intercalated BSc in Immunology and Molecular Biology and MBBS (UCL), FRCS (Eng.), FRCS (Cth.)
The Private Harley Street Clinic has created a free guide which gives businesses advice on how to manage their return to work strategy and fulfil their obligations under PHE. – Click here to download.