Matt Hancock has urged firms with more than 50 employees coming into work during the coronavirus lockdown to apply to for regular rapid-result coronavirus tests in an expansion of the workplace scheme.
The Department for Health and Social Care stressed the drive forms part of an effort to “normalise testing in the workplace across both public and private sectors” and identify asymptomatic cases of Covid-19.
According to government statistics, 112 organisations across the UK have so far signed up to take part in mass testing – spanning 500 sites.
Officials said that businesses with more than 50 employers continuing to travel to work will now be able to join the programme and access the lateral flow tests, which can produce results in less than 30 minutes.
Only firms employing over 250 staff previously qualified and frontline workers, such as police, firefighters, border force staff and civil servants working on the Covid-19 response, are among those who already have access to regular quickfire tests.
Dan Shears, the director of health, safety and environment at GMB union, said the rapid tests are “not a magic bullet”, adding: “It is vital that employers understand the limitations and take steps to address them.
“Everyone wants to ensure that infectious workers keep away from the workplace, but this means getting the introduction of testing right – with confirmatory testing to avoid ‘false negatives’ – and crucially ensuring that all protective measures to reduce transmission are implemented to the maximum.”
In a statement, Mr Hancock said: “To save lives and protect the NHS, we have again asked for everyone to work from home. But we know that for some this is not possible, which is why the workplace rapid testing programme is so important.
He added: “Employers should regularly test their staff, and this drive across government to raise awareness and encourage more businesses to introduce rapid testing for employees is incredibly important.
“When you consider the around one in three people have the virus without symptoms and could potentially infect people without knowing it, it becomes clear why focusing testing on those without symptoms is so essential.
“We are already working with many employers to scale up workforce testing, spanning the food industry, retail sector, transport network, and across the public sector too. I strongly urge businesses and employees across the country to take up this offer of rapid testing to help stop this virus spreading further.”
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, aded: “Businesses across the country have been working extremely hard to keep their workforces safe during the pandemic, with retail, manufacturing and energy companies among those already take up the offer of workplace testing.
“I urge even more employers to do the same to help stop the spread of the virus and protect our NHS. We want to be able to reopen the economy and recover our way of life as soon as it is safe to do so, and large-scale workplace testing will complement our work in getting the British people vaccinated.”