Lack of low-cost Covid tests exacerbating business and staffing issues, experts warn

The lack of free or cheap Covid lateral flow tests (LFT) is exacerbating business and staffing issues and forcing organisations to make difficult and costly safeguarding decisions, experts have warned.

Since 1 April, access to free LFTs has been restricted, with care home residents, hospital patients and other vulnerable groups some of the only demographics who can get a no-charge Covid test if they have symptoms.

Prior to the scaling back of free testing, Paul Scully, business minister, confirmed this would mean businesses would be liable to pay for their own testing regime.

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However, Jane Gratton, head of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BBC), said that with Covid still contributing to staffing shortages and widespread business disruption, firms are having to decide on their own way forward as “government advice doesn’t quite cut it for businesses.”

“Covid remains a significant concern for employers. It’s contributing to worsening staff shortages and reducing capacity and service delivery,” Gratton said. “Firms are under significant financial pressure already and must now decide to either fund testing or invest in keeping other Covid related safeguards for staff and customers.

“This risks a haphazard patchwork approach. For businesses to retain staff and customer confidence, they must be given free tests or be allowed to buy them at cost through government procurement.”

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The BCC said three-quarters of its members had at least one person off sick in the last four weeks, with multiple reports suggesting that this is an issue that is more acute for those operating in customer-facing industries, such as hospitality.

Similarly, the Federation of Small Businesses has reported that one in seven organisations it represents cannot trade at the moment due to staffing shortages.

Even in organisations that can support remote and hybrid work, employers are reporting that Covid-positive staff are experiencing symptoms of illness that mean they cannot work.

“Covid, alongside the rising costs of doing business, energy prices, recruitment difficulties and wage pressures is making this a precarious time for businesses,” Gratton said.

The BCC has previously criticised the government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan – which has seen Covid restrictions and testing requirements come to an end in England – for not doing enough to protect vulnerable staff and customers. “There also remains a huge question mark over the handling of the risks to vulnerable employees [and the] government must work with business on providing more detailed guidance,” Gratton added.

Separately, official figures have shown a significant number of businesses are taking on costs for self-isolating employees. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that about one in six businesses are paying staff to voluntarily self-isolate after they test positive. Paying for tests adds to this financial pressure, with the price of off-the-shelf LFT tests starting at £1.69 per test.

ONS figures show that around one in 14 people had coronavirus in the last week in England, while infections remain at a record high level in Wales.