In November, Mike Coupe, director of Covid-19 testing at England’s Test and Trace agency, told the Defra war room mass testing was to be launched across the UK. The idea was to tackle the industry’s biggest fear: a workforce crisis that could shut down food production on a large scale.
Almost two months later, with the UK since hit by a deadly new wave of the virus and plunged into another lockdown, that rollout is finally beginning.
As The Grocer revealed today, after successful trials of a pilot at Tate & Lyle Sugars’ site in east London, tens of thousands of food workers now stand to be tested twice a week in factories and distribution centres. The industry hopes supermarket workers could be next in line.
The Tate & Lyle trial showed that so-called asymptomatic testing could be a big weapon for food companies hoping to stop Covid in its tracks. Of 500 workers tested during the pilot, five were shown to be carrying the illness and displaying no symptoms. That could have quickly turned into a major outbreak, the likes of which have sadly been too common in food factories since the pandemic began.
The plan to test workers twice a week will now be supported by ministers until at least March. Meanwhile, trials continue of an even more advanced testing programme, which could offer daily tests so even workers exposed to Covid cases can continue to work if they prove negative.
But it is too soon to see these latest developments as a victory against Covid. The government has all too often over-promised and under-delivered on testing and we have had many false dawns before.
Only a few months ago, ministers had pinned their hopes on a new app, also trialled at Tate & Lyle, which was set to revolutionise Test and Trace – but has done nothing of the sort.
Even the more established technology being used in the new rollout is far from perfect, with doubts over the effectiveness of the lateral flow tests already at the heart of the government’s failure to get schools back into the classroom as ministers had planned.
And while the so-called Project Enable presented by Coupe two months ago has been slower to emerge than the industry hoped, in Scotland mass testing is even further off, with some saying it won’t start until next month.
However, as Tate & Lyle boss Gerald Mason puts it, the prospect of the new rollout does allow the industry at least to “take a small step ahead of the virus”.
The latest figure shows more than one in 10 food and drink companies have absence rates of 10% to 20%, which could all too easily explode if, as reports today alarmingly suggest, we are not yet over the latest peak.
Now it’s up to food companies to act fast to protect their workforces and take the government up on its offer.