Coronavirus: Businesses 'nervous' about antibody tests for employees

By Brian Meechan
BBC Wales business correspondent

Media caption,
Workplace antibody tests 'will reassure' staff

Companies are "nervous" about testing employees for coronavirus antibodies, according to the director of CBI Wales.

Ian Price said there were "legitimate" tests available that employers can use but it was important to get it right.

Some businesses hope to benefit from workers being tested to see if they have already had coronavirus, so providing the assurances for more to get back to work.

The Welsh Government would decide how antibody tests are rolled out in Wales.

The antibody test - involving testing drops of blood - has been viewed as a potential "game-changer" in tackling the virus as it would help understand who has had coronavirus and whether they have immunity.

Stocks of "home-kit" antibody tests were being prepared to go on sale but were withdrawn.

Public health officials have also been concerned that it could lead to people breaking measures like social distancing if they thought they had already had the virus.

But work is continuing on developing a reliable test which can be mass produced.

It is still not clear whether having had coronavirus gives a person immunity from catching it again.

Businesses said antibody tests could help them as they bring people back to work, but only if the tests are proved to be reliable.

Mr Price warns that if tests are not robust it could "lead people into a false sense of security".

"Within a business like mine we are quite naturally socially distant," said Hayley Pells, owner of Avia Autos in Bridgend.

"The advantage of that is that we have been able to remain safe and operate during the pandemic. Having something like testing in place, it would enable us to track and trace and contribute to the data that is needed to fight the virus. It would also reassure our team and get us back working."

Image caption,
Hayley Pells said she saw buying testing kits as an extension of her current provision of PPE

What about key workers who are customers?

"With the transmission risk of the virus, although we are putting everything in place to reduce that risk by sanitising cars that come in and out, we do have to be mindful of the people who have to make essential travel," she said.

"Those on the front line that are exposed to the virus who desperately need their cars to get to work. We also have people who need their cars for treatment and they may have compromised immunity. It is up to us to make sure they are safe."

She said having testing freely available would increase reassurance for workers but also to suppliers and customers.

"Operating as a small business we already invest in our PPE. I would see buying testing kits as an extension of that PPE provision. If the testing could be available at a price I could afford I would definitely consider buying those kits in."

Image caption,
Andy Murdoch used to be a partner in the business but now works reduced hours for his daughter

Hayley's father, Andy Murdoch, works for Avia but has been keeping away from the garage due to a long-term health issue. He'd like to be tested so he can go back to work.

"If you could get tested, if there was a reliable way of saying 'yes I'm fine', every day if you like - I'm not sure how often you would need to do it. Any reassurance is going to be good. For me, I'd go in tomorrow."

Image caption,
Disinfecting the interior of SPTS Technologies in Newport

'From a confidence point of view it would be really beneficial'

SPTS in Newport has 380 employees but only 90 have been working at the site during the coronavirus outbreak with the rest working from home.

The company is part of the supply chain for the manufacturing of medical devices so its work was viewed as critical.

It has brought in a series of safety measures, including mandatory hand washing when entering the building, split and staggered shifts, and temperature reading.

Mark Christoffersen, director of manufacturing facilities believes tests might give the business more confidence and bring more people back into work.

"From a confidence point of view it would be really beneficial. Obviously the science has to support that, it has to be accurate. For us as a business that would be really important."

'Get this right'

Mr Price, from CBI Wales, said it was important for companies to be clear about what they were getting into, before they started to test,

"There is some general nervousness around all these different tests that are out there at the moment. You can go on the internet and find all sorts of things.

"It does appear that there are some legitimate tests out there now that employers can use."

He added that there was "a lot of guidance" given by the UK and Welsh governments and that the main issue for employers was to "get this right."