Employers are starting to organise antigen tests for their staff as they prepare for a mass return to the office, according to a Cork-based provider of corporate health screening, amid uncertainty over whether they can legally ask staff if they are vaccinated.
A phased return to offices is still likely to start next month, government sources have said, but employers do not yet have a protocol on how to do this without the risk of unvaccinated staff spreading Covid-19.
A return to workplaces is likely to be included next week in the roadmap the Government is publishing for the lifting of remaining Covid restrictions over the months ahead.
However, guidance from the Government’s Work Safely Protocol, which was published in May, and subsequent guidance from the Data Protection Commission suggests employers cannot insist on employees informing them of their vaccination status, legal experts have pointed out.
Immunology professor Luke O’Neill has said he believes rapid antigen testing will be a key weapon in the reopening of the economy.
Ed Donovan, the founder and chief executive of Advanced Medical Services (AMS), said the company, which expanded to providing antigen and PCR tests during the pandemic, is “doing a lot of rapid antigen testing, even though a lot of people have already been vaccinated, and we see antigen testing getting busier between now and the end of 2021 with people returning to work in the autumn”.
“Regardless of whether people are vaccinated or not, there are still merits to having a test done because you can be asymptomatic and still transmit the virus,” he said. “By having regular antigen and PCR testing done, you will still be picking up cases and making employees as safe as possible.
“We’ve already had a couple of companies hold discussions with us about offering home-based antigen testing. We send the tests to the employees while they are working from home and then input the results onto our cloud-based platform.
"In the lead-up to going back to work, the employees can do a couple of tests a few days beforehand and while they are in work, they could do a test the night or morning before. We are seeing more demand for that (from employers).”
In Donovan’s experience, employers are not making antigen tests mandatory. “It’s being made available to the employees and it’s up to them whether or not to get tested,” he said.
“But we have it in our consent form that if they do test positive, we’ll inform them but we’ll also need to inform the employer too, from a health and safety perspective. We share the results with a line manager or supervisor so that everyone is kept safe.”
While a large proportion of corporate Ireland continues to work from home, AMS has carried out some 60,000 rapid antigen tests on staff in the pharmaceutical and medical device sector and other sites where “staff have to be at work” since the company first introduced the service in January.
AMS began rolling out PCR tests in May 2020, with the bulk of its weekly testing conducted on factory workers in the food, meat and dairy sector.
Donovan, a 2020 finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme, set up AMS in 2010.
While working as operations manager for Blackrock Clinic in Dublin, he had discovered a gap in the market for providing private cardiac screening to schools and sports clubs in a bid to tackle Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS).
“Part of my remit (at Blackrock) was overseeing the cath lab, which had a dozen cardiologists,” he said. “What struck me is that you think of heart issues as being something that older people suffer from, but there were a lot of young people coming in who needed devices.
"I spoke to the cardiologists about SADS and researched Italy, where they reduced SADS by 89pc after making cardiac screening mandatory for competitive sport for the over-12s.
“In Ireland, you might go to a GP and they might refer you to a cardiologist for cardiac screening and it could cost hundreds of euro and take months,” he said.
"I decided to make it more affordable and bring it to schools and sporting organisations. I thought there was a good business model for that.”
AMS expanded to corporate health screening in 2012, when it took on Laya Healthcare as a client.
After Covid arrived, AMS became the first private on-site provider of PCR tests when it began testing players at four League of Ireland teams.
It also started moving some of its services online, such as by offering home-based testing kits for diabetes and cholesterol levels.
In July, it added Ireland’s first consultant-led at-home fertility tests.
The company, which expects to post revenue of €7m this year compared to €3.7m in 2020, expects demand for at-home tests to continue.
“It’s coming down to convenience and people being more IT savvy, and tele-health — with doctors doing video-calls — is growing,” Donovan said. “Covid has accelerated this.”