As the prime minister’s promise of a return to “life as normal” edges nearer, the government has described increased testing as a “cornerstone” of its strategy to curb transmission of the virus and support economic recovery.
The Department for Health and Social Care is in the process of spinning up a national programme to provide asymptomatic coronavirus tests to businesses, which the government hopes will shore up sectors such as food and drink where people cannot work from home.
It has written to key sectors encouraging them to sign up, and NHS Test and Trace officials are meanwhile running a series of webinars giving detailed guidance for businesses on exactly how to turn conference rooms into testing labs for employees.
‘Breaking the chain of transition’
More than a third of coronavirus cases are understood to be asymptomatic, and DHSC hopes providing regular tests will “break the chain of transmission”, officials said in the first of its webinars about the programme.
Above: Briefing materials shared with businesses in a DHSC webinar on the National Worker Programme
The lateral flow tests used for the National Worker Programme do not need to be taken in a clinical setting and produce results in around 20 minutes. People that test positive – and their contacts – must self-isolate, but officials on the webinar stressed the offer is “completely voluntary” for both businesses and their employees. The government will not require staff to take the twice-a-week tests even if their employers set up facilities.
Testing is primarily aimed at people who cannot work from home, but a letter from business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at the end of last month notes that it will also be open to people "who will return to the workplace as the economy opens up" in line with the government's roadmap out of lockdown. At-home testing is not yet available, although officials are looking into it "for select workers", officials on the webinar said.
Briefing materials DHSC has shared with businesses meanwhile stress that the testing regime will not replace current coronavirus regulations such as social distancing in the workplace.
As well as the free tests, the service includes an “end-to-end” digital platform where results are collected and sent to employees; online training; and guidance for employers on how to set up testing facilities. Businesses will receive a communications pack that includes model press releases, FAQs and instructions on how to carry out the tests.
Officials also hope data from the programme will help inform other efforts to tackle coronavirus. Tests results will be shared with the National Pathology Data Exchange, which is being used to track the spread of the virus, while anonymised data will be shared with Public Health England.
Businesses in England with more than 50 employees are the first to get access to the scheme, with farmers and growers among those being encouraged to apply.
Businesses that register by 31 March will get free test kits up until the end of June. Officials said the department was aiming to “provide clarity” as soon as possible on how the programme will progress beyond that date.
Calling in the consultants
The NWP is part of the Community Testing Programme, a national, rapid testing service DHSC announced in January that is part of NHS Test and Trace’s efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus. Outside contractors have been used extensively to support test and trace projects.
DHSC contracts show that since January, PA Consulting has been working on a strategy and policy for the programme, along with a strategic roadmap, milestones and an integration plan. Under a 10-month £12m contract, which was published last week and detailed the development on the NWP, the firm will work to develop “key programme controls” for NHS Test and Trace such as risks and a master plan, as well as delivery dashboards, management plans and mandates; stakeholder plans; and schedules and other project products.
Consultants will also brief ministers, produce comms materials and come up with an evaluation policy and management information strategy.
Left: an extract from PA Consulting's £12m contract for strategy and project management for the National Worker Programme
This is one of several contracts that DHSC has signed recently that indicate some skills are still in short supply and civil servants' capacity to complete projects in house is stretched, despite NHS Test and Trace head Dido Harding saying the organisation had begun “scaling down” its use of consultants and that more civil servants were being hired to "support changes in consultancy use".
Deloitte, which has been involved in coronavirus testing through a series of major contracts throughout the pandemic, is set to recieve £122.9m for its latest phase of work for test and trace, which will include scaling up and delivering the NWP as well as setting up local and regional community-testing sites and assisting civil servants with procurement, logistics and project management across several programmes. An optional 60-day extension could push the cost of the seven-month project up to £145m.
The Deloitte contract includes requirements to support the hiring of civil servants and handing-over of projects as and when civil service teams have the capacity to take them on.
A DHSC spokesperson said alongside government departments, local authorities and third-sector groups, consultants had been "instrumental" in setting up NHS Test and Trace and "ensuring the programme meets the stretching targets we have been set".
“Their specialist skills have enhanced our strategic, policy and operational capacity, ensuring that we break the chains of transmission faster," they said.
“Every pound spent is helping to save lives, but we have always been clear that all contracts must achieve value for taxpayers and are based on good commercial judgement.”
Getting the word out
DHSC's focus in the coming weeks will be on getting businesses to sign up to the scheme before the initial registration deadline of 31 March. As well as the webinar series, ministers have been writing to businesses to convince them to sign up – Kwarteng's letter stresses that workplaces which have already introduced regular testing through private providers "find they can plan with more certainty and spot individual cases before whole teams fall ill".
Other departments are meanwhile targeting specific sectors where they believe testing could be particularly valuable. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been communicating with the National Farmers Union to get the word out, and in a letter to food, drinks and waste businesses earlier this month, environment secretary George Eustice wrote that "now is the time" for them to step up and adopt the NWP.
"We now have a roadmap to open up our communities and restart our lives, but we need to remain vigilant and continue to protect our sectors and the workforce as we go forward. That means taking all necessary precautions to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection in the workplace," Eustice wrote.
"Employers have a vital role to play in this next phase, minimising the spread of infection among those who cannot work from home by introducing regular testing for asymptomatic staff."
Workplaces that have signed up to the scheme already include Royal Mail, Tate & Lyle Sugars, Primula, Moy Park, Octopus Energy, Apetito, as well as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.