NI SMART: Expansion of the Asymptomatic Testing Programme
The purpose of asymptomatic testing is to identify individuals within the population who are positive for COVID-19 but do not present symptoms. Expansion of asymptomatic testing in Northern Ireland is intended to introduce regular testing for the virus which causes COVID-19 in workforces across the public and private sectors in Northern Ireland.
The aim of this testing is to identify asymptomatic individuals so they and their close contacts can be isolated - therefore breaking chains of transmission in the workforce and beyond. This approach is known as “test to find”.
Workforce asymptomatic testing is in addition to, and does not replace, a range of other measures in place in wider society, such as social distancing, hand hygiene and face coverings.
This programme relates solely to asymptomatic participants. Any test participants, or site staff, displaying symptoms of COVID-19 should leave the site immediately and follow the national guidance for getting tested. More information can be found on the Public Health Agency's website: Testing for COVID-19.
What are the benefits?
As the number of cases of COVID-19 in the community continues to fall, we now need to ensure that measures are in place to protect the workforce in our public and private sectors, as we go forward. That means taking all necessary precautions to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection in the workplace.
Employers have a vital role to play in this next phase, minimising the spread of infection among those who cannot work from home by introducing regular testing for asymptomatic staff. Workforce testing can help to protect staff, helping to give confidence to those who continue to come into work, as well as improving the overall resilience of business operations. It will also provide additional assurance to customers or the general public who are interacting with staff in person.
Identifying asymptomatic positive cases and informing them to self-isolate will reduce the spread of the virus. This will benefit employers and society as a whole as it will help to keep infection rates down across Northern Ireland, contributing to a vital strategy to suppress the virus.
During the pandemic, outbreaks have led to some sites being temporarily closed. The rollout of workforce testing will help to prevent this.
What is lateral flow testing?
Lateral Flow Test (LFT) detects a protein produced by the virus at its most infectious stage. If present in the person’s sample, a coloured line appears on the device after 15-30 minutes. Lateral Flow Tests are simple, easy to use test devices which provide results quickly and which do not require any specialist equipment or a laboratory to deliver.
It is important to note, that LFTs are not as sensitive as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and negative results do not rule out that an employee has the virus. It is therefore essential that employees adhere to the measures in place and, if they have any of the symptoms of COVID-19, they book a PCR test and self-isolate. Testing twice a week increases the detection rate of LFTs.
Individuals with positive LFTs will be asked to isolate immediately along with their households. In Northern Ireland it is our policy that all individuals with a positive LFT should have a PCR swab test as soon as possible to confirm the result.
Community contact tracing will be initiated on PCR confirmation. If a PCR result is not available within 48 hours contact tracing will commence on the basis of a positive LFT.
If the result of the PCR test is negative the individual and the household can leave isolation and no further action is required.
Government support for workforce testing
Initially, Northern Ireland Executive will support regular asymptomatic testing across public and private employers based on a series of prioritisation and principles, ensuring this is made available through a phased approach and to essential services to begin with.
Government support for workforce testing: Public sector
At this stage, we invite expressions of interest for regular asymptomatic testing in public sector workforces which include:
- Public bodies performing critical functions and providing key services;
- Public bodies delivering essential services;
- Where employees cannot work from home;
- Potential for higher or increased exposure to risk and transmission of COVID-19.
Government support for workforce testing: Private sector
Workforce testing is now available any business sector with more than 50 employees who cannot work from home.
Government support for workforce testing
We will also work closely with employers to ensure that employees are aware of what support they can access if they are required to self-isolate.
The support available for public bodies/sector organisations in Northern Ireland to introduce workforce testing will include:
- Facilitation of access to relevant DHSC support materials, including a guidebook, workforce blueprint, digital signage assets and a clinical standard operating procedure (SOP);
- Provision, via DHSC, of Lateral Flow Tests from the Northern Ireland allocation for a defined period subject to contractual arrangements;
- Access to the online workforce testing portal providing digital solutions covering user registration, results capture and delivery guidance;
- Provision of PPE (Public Sector Only);
- Training – online training and information from DHSC. Training opportunities may also be available from local partners and providers.
To access workforce testing support organisations will need to demonstrate:
- They are a recognised body/registered with Companies House & trading;
- A clear purpose and plan for testing in line with the workforce blueprints provided by DHSC. This is in addition to providing a COVID-19 safe working environment;
- They have the resources, capacity and capability to deliver the testing site/ process according the standard operating procedure;
- Working arrangements and engagement with the workforce/trade unions.
DHSC will provide indemnity to approved organisations subject to confirmation that their arrangements are in line with the SOP.
What is your responsibility?
Approved organisations will sign a contract with DHSC. Under the terms of the contract:
- The organisation will construct and set up testing environments in accordance with SOP guidelines (including storage areas for tests) for sample collection, analysis, disposal and reporting;
- Tests must be supervised by employer provided staff who will be given suitable training via an online platform;
- Employees will be tested under a schedule as defined by the employer;
- Testing will not be compulsory;
- Sample materials need to be treated as clinical waste. Disposal will take place at the place of test, in line with local (Northern Ireland) requirements;
- Test results will be shared with NPEx (National Pathology Exchange) prior to anonymised onward distribution to the Public Health Agency;
- Under current legislation, employers do not receive results directly.
Please be aware that there may be some divergence in the offer to organisations, which differs from what is in place in England. Each Devolved Authority are setting their own priorities. The first stage of priorities as agreed for Northern Ireland have been set out.
Workforce Asymptomatic Testing
The Department has announced an expansion of the asymptomatic testing programme.
Employers from key sectors within Northern Ireland can now access the national testing programme as part of a targeted expansion of workforce asymptomatic testing.
Testing will be rolled out through a phased approach, prioritising essential services to begin with.
Expressions of Interest
Organisations who wish to participate in the Workforce Asymptomatic Testing programme can complete an online expression of interest.
You will need to provide details of your organisation including:
- Your NI Company Registration Number
- Industry / Sector for your organisation
- Provide a short summary of your company and how you meet the criteria
- How many employees your company has and how many cannot work from home
- Contact details of a key contact in your organisation who we can speak to
- What does asymptomatic mean?
Asymptomatic means someone who has no symptoms of a disease, in this case COVID-19. Evidence has shown that people infected by the virus that causes COVID-19 can have no symptoms and still spread the disease.
- What is LFD testing?
LFD stands for Lateral Flow Device. This test detects the virus that causes COVID-19.
LFD testing uses nasal and/or throat swab samples to detect a protein (antigen) produced by the virus at its most infectious stage.
If present in the person's sample, two coloured lines appear on the device within 10-30 minutes.
- How frequently should staff be tested?
Staff should be tested twice per week.
- What are the benefits of the lateral flow device tests?
We know that between one in three people who have COVID–19 don’t show any symptoms.
These devices help identify people who have the virus but do not have symptoms.
The benefits of the LFD testing technology include:
- The ability to be used at the point of need and at scale
- Confirmation of a positive or negative test result within half an hour, employees should receive their test result in approximately an hour.
- minimal workforce training required
- no requirement for laboratory analysis
- Is the test safe?
Yes - Lateral flow tests are validated technology, they are safe, and the results are trusted. These tests have undergone rigorous testing and evaluation including at Public Health England’s research laboratories to ensure they are verified for use.
- How do we express our interest in setting up asymptomatic testing at our workplace?
Organisations wanting to introduce workforce testing should submit an expression of interest.
- Why do we need confirmatory PCR testing if LFDs are accurate?
A confirmatory PCR test is required following a positive LFD test. This enables the Public Health Agency to commence contact tracing and also allows for the monitoring of variants of concern.
Although highly unlikely, it is possible to receive a false positive LFD test result and a negative PCR test would the individual to stop self-isolating.
- Should LFD testing continue now that the vaccination programme is underway?
Yes – it is still possible to catch COVID-19 following a vaccination. Testing will protect those who may be more vulnerable to a severe reaction to the disease.
- Do we expect a high number of positive results?
No. The number of positive LFD tests that we have seen to date has been very low.
As society reopens, and lockdown measures are relaxed, we may see an increase in the number of positive tests. LFD testing will help to break chains of transmission and help to maintain a return to normal life.
- What happens if you have a lateral flow test that is positive, but your PCR test comes back negative?
In the unlikely event that you do receive a positive LFT, but your PCR test comes back negative, you will no longer have to self-isolate.
- If I have received the vaccine, will this affect the test result?
- Do I have to participate in LFD testing in my workplace if they have set up LFD testing – Is it compulsory?
LFD testing is recommended but not mandatory.
- How do I get my LFD test result?
Employees should receive their test result within 60 minutes of undertaking their test.
- Do lateral flow tests require a professional to perform the test?
No. The LFD test has been validated for self-swabbing. This means that subjects will be asked to self-administer a swab and provide their own sample. They do not require a qualified person to conduct the test.
- Is the LFD test safe for those that are pregnant?
Yes, the tests are safe to use by those who are pregnant.
- I have Covid-19 symptoms, should I take an LFD test?
No – if you have COVID-19 symptoms you should book a PCR test by: