Are antibody tests the key to reassuring staff that it's safe to return to work?

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Are antibody tests the key to reassuring staff that it's safe to return to work?

According to research published in Personnel Today, 90% of employees said they would like their employers to offer antibody testing in their workplaces. And, 59% would feel more comfortable at work if they knew for certain they previously had coronavirus. 

What are antibody tests?

Antibody tests are used to detect antibodies to the COVID-19 virus to see if you have previously had the virus. The test works by taking a blood sample and testing for the presence of antibodies to see if you have developed an immune response to the virus.

Antibody tests differ to virus swab (PCR) tests, which test to see if you currently have the virus.

Are people with antibodies immune from spreading or developing coronavirus again?

Scientists still don’t know whether coronavirus antibodies give a person immunity or reduce the risk of reinfection. According to government guidance, the value of antibody tests is currently limited to answering the question of whether someone has had the virus or not, and providing data and a greater understanding on the spread of the virus.

Types of testing available in the UK

The government has started to roll out a national antibody testing programme but, currently it's only available to NHS and care staff. 

Private companies offer tests. Some need a medical professional to draw blood and others use finger prick tests that can be done at home.

Cost

Unless you're covered by the government programme, you will have to pay for the cost of testing - and it's not cheap. Private antibody tests cost around £65 and, whilst you may be able to get a reduction if you're buying in volume, it's a big outlay if you're just doing it to reassure staff. Plus, learning that you do have antibodies may encourage some people to act as though they are immune and take unnecessary risks. 

Note: these tests might be treated as a benefit in kind which means staff taking them will have to pay tax on the cost. Earlier this week, the government confirmed that employees won't have to pay tax on antigen tests (which test for the virus) but has not said anything about antibody tests.

Data protection

If you process information about your employees' health, it will be 'special category data' and is subject to important safeguards set out in the GDPR. Before you can process that information, you must 1) identify the legal basis you are relying on (Article 6 GDPR) - such as pursuing legitimate interests and, 2) identify the special condition you are relying on (Article 9 of GDPR) - such as it is necessary to use health data in order to comply with your employment obligations. Bear in mind that you can't usually rely on an employee's consent (even if freely given) in the context of an employment relationship because it's assumed that the employer has greater bargaining power than its staff.

Health and safety

The government has updated all 12 of its work sector guides but none of these require antibody testing. 

Our view is that it's much more important to concentrate your efforts on making your workplace as safe as possible by following these guidelines than offering antibody testing. 

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