As all of us absorb some of the more troubling aspects of the recent government announcements, we might not be able to avoid a sense of déjà vu. Just like at the end of March, the government is making decisions very quickly that will have a sizable effect the British public. Even more so, the government is pursuing the same line of response that they pursued back in March, leading some to question how far we have really come in our understanding of how to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the last few weeks, however, there have been a number of breakthroughs in the scientific community. These revelations concern the sensitivity of rapid testing, a topic that has been hotly debated in the months since lockdown began. For many, the fact that rapid tests were unable to detect antibodies and viral material below a certain threshold was a fatal flaw, further confirming the predominant use of PCR testing which can detect below this threshold.
The problem lies in the fact that PCR tests – like those available on the NHS – take at least 48 hours to return a result. Given that the government advises those with symptoms to stay at home, this might mean that the patient misses two days of work at the least, which, as infections rise again, could threaten the financial stability of those already hit hard by the pandemic. Similarly, those interested in travelling might have to postpone or even cancel their plans if they experience symptoms at an inopportune time. Clearly, there is an incentive here for Britons to simply take their chances, to keep functioning in ignorance by not applying for a test or to apply for a test but make no adjustments to their behaviour while they wait for the results. In both cases, the delay inherent in PCR testing poses a problem for mitigating infection rates.
But, since rapid tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests, we have no other option but to continue with this line of response, right?
Well, Harvard immunologist Dr. Michael Mina has a strange yet simple answer (which he lays out clearly and concisely in a recent New York Times article): what if rapid tests are just insensitive enough to miss non-contagious or non-immune individuals who nevertheless have some tiny amount of viral material or antibodies? Put another way, what if a positive result from a rapid test gives us all the information that actually we care about: are we infectious/immune or not?
Dr. Mina would answer in the affirmative. He does not dispute that rapid tests are less sensitive but still holds that they are more useful that PCR tests, since we are not interested in detecting any and all amounts of viral material or antibodies but only those amounts which make a patient contagious or presently immune. So, why are we being so sensitive? Rapid testing offers the British public the power to make informed decisions at the pace of their lives. PCR testing interrupts their lives to give them information that they don’t need.
If you are interested in purchasing a rapid test, take a look at our online shop and our eBay page.
The next phase of the government’s response to the pandemic begins on Friday as face coverings become mandatory in various public spaces. It is unclear why exactly the government has chosen to do this. Although the pandemic rages on, we are still seeing sustained decreases in infection rates. A number of explanations have been given, most of which revolve around increasing the confidence of shoppers. Understandably, the government is desperate to give the British economy a jump-start and hope that these measures will encourage demand.
However, if this is the case, it doesn’t seem to explain why the government is punishing non-compliance, rather than simply advising compliance. It is worth re-emphasising then that COVID-19 remains a real danger to public health, as the recent outbreak in Leicester demonstrated. So, if they are effective, wearing a mask would definitely be in the public’s best interest.
One of the other problems with this new legislation is that it promises to create a whole bunch of complications for small businesses. Our plan with this blog is to untangle some of these, to give small businesses the confidence to weather this phase of the crisis.
What Are You Legally Required to Do?
From July 24, face coverings will be mandatory in shops, supermarkets and on public transport. It is worth emphasising that pubs, cafés and restaurants are not subject to these rules, according to a government spokesperson contacted by the BBC.
Now, the brunt of the legislation falls on the public, rather than transport operators or business owners. For example, the system of fines attached to these measures only apply to the public. The fine for not wearing a face covering in these public spaces is £100, although this halves to £50 if the perpetrator pays within 14 days. This does not mean that there can be no repercussion for business owners, however – the government has stated that they ‘will be expected to encourage compliance with the law’. It is only that there are no prescribed punishments in the legislation for non-public actors.
The government does explain how business owners can legally respond to those breaking these new laws. Most notably, businesses can ‘refuse entry’. Since the legislation gives the police the power to fine members of the public, businesses therefore have recourse to requesting their aid in dealing with non-compliant customers.
Many readers will have already observed that these new measures pose a number of challenges for small businesses. The pandemic has already been disastrous for many small businesses, especially those which require proximity to customers. For such businesses, this legislation reads as yet another major threat to their livelihoods.
For many small businesses, relationships of trust are crucial. Whether it is the trust and loyalty of frequent patrons or the necessity of making that initial impression as a trust-worthy establishment, small businesses rely heavily on the interactions with customers that might be hamstrung by this legislation. For example, consider the situation of a trusted customer entering your shop without a mask – do you risk offense and ill-will by asking them to leave? Similarly, how much new business are you willing to turn away in compliance with this legislation?
In discussing the role of transport operators to their customers, the government states that they can ‘direct some to wear a face covering’. There is no requirement for transport operators or business owners to have face coverings on hand, however, and no mention of such a practice in general. However, having a number of masks available at your workplace, staff can give them to customers entering without a mask, preventing a loss of business.
The Perfect Mask
So far, we’ve skipped over one of the most important aspects of this development: are masks even effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19?
There has been considerable debate within the scientific community on this topic. Yet, as it stands, there is no debate around whether masks are effective, only how effective they might be.
The picture that virologists paint about masks looks something like this. COVID-19 is spread predominantly by droplets originating in the mouth, nose and throat, partly because of the distance these droplets can cover as a result of the air propelled when someone exhales or speaks. Similarly, the virus’ main entry-point into the body is the mouth, hence all the guidance about refraining from touching your face. Masks are designed as a barrier to these infectious droplets, regardless of whether they are coming from the wearer themselves or another person in close proximity to them. Therefore, masks prevent both the infected from spreading the virus and the non-infected from catching it.
If you’d like a more comprehensive explanation, take a look at this video:
As might be clear to you, the effectiveness of the mask depends upon the quality of the mask. Luckily, the most effective masks are fairly simple to make and as such, relatively inexpensive, made from pieces of cotton attached to string or elastic straps. Many have become interested in so-called “valved” masks which appear to be far more high-tech and therefore more secure than the regular cotton mask.
However, there have been rising concerns about these masks, which are nevertheless still far less popular than their cheaper cotton counterparts. Of course, these concerns are more pressing in light of this new legislation, which will spur a drastic increase in the wearing of masks.
Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s decision to wear a one of these masks became a flashpoint for the debate over their effectiveness. A number of virologists penned concerned letters and articles, including Dr Bharat Pankhania of the University of Exeter Medical School, who highlighted the filtering valves on the mask, supposedly a further protection, as having the potential to exaggerate the possibility of spreading COVID-19 by creating a ‘high-velocity flow of air from the mouth … which could create a plume of infection.’ In India, where the masks are more common, the government has had to issue an official statement against their use.
So, the regular cotton mask remains the most effective which is hand since they are so much more affordable than the alternative. If you’re still in need of a mask for yourself or a number of masks for your workplace, head on over to our online shop or our eBay page to get your hands on some.
During the pandemic, the news media has rightly focussed almost exclusively on the most vulnerable and those who have suffered directly, whether it is the survivors or those who have been unable to say goodbye to their loved ones. For the rest of us, the last few months have been simply surreal. It has been hard to articulate exactly what it is that we have all lived through – indeed, what we are still living through. This strangeness and uncertainty of the situation was heightened for young people, however, despite a lack of coverage.
Not for a number of generations has there been such a radical interruption of everyday life. Those of us who are in still in some form of education have experienced extensive changes to grading systems, teaching timetables and accommodation. Undergraduates in their final year have been forced to finish degrees at home that they have been working towards sometimes for four years. Cut off from the usual access to all of the university’s resources and required to respond to often daily changes in assessment structures, many undergraduates became justifiably despondent, feeling as if all of their previous hard work had been suddenly and radically undermined. Similarly, GCSE and A-Level students have been left at the mercy of bureaucracies as their final grades are to be decided for them without their taking the relevant exams. The same despondency reigns, students are robbed of the opportunity to outperform predictions or turn their current attainment around – in short, they are frustratingly stripped of their agency.
As many parents of will tell you, this despondency has only exaggerated the effects of being separated from friends and prohibited from enjoying the sorts of lifestyles that young Britons lead today. Expressions of this malaise dominated social media during the lockdown. One popular notion was that of ‘lockdown time’ – it was such a prevalent topic of discussion that the BBC devoted a lengthy article to the phenomenon. It refers to the strange experience of not knowing what day of the week it is, of seemingly losing whole days, or of time radically speeding up.
So, what happens when lockdown begins to be eased? Well, young people are the most eager to get out. This continues to be a problem. The months spent in lockdown, the freedom from work, and an interest in distracting themselves from the uncertainty that has been introduced into their lives – all of these factors make young people far more likely to break the guidelines. Considering that the virus poses far less of a risk to their health, it is understandable that young Britons are a little more reckless with the guidance. However, it is important to remember their role as potential carriers of the disease.
Balancing the need for young people to enjoy the summer with the need to contain the virus is paramount. Perhaps, rapid testing might provide a solution. Reliable rapid tests would enable young people to test frequently, ensuring that they are not infected before interacting with others.
As the pandemic has progressed, there has been growing public interest in the potentials of testing. With reliable means of detecting whether someone has or has had the virus, we might better adjust not only public policy but our own lives, which have been so abruptly interrupted. There has been endless discussion about the possibilities of immunity for those who have contracted the virus and survived. There have also been doubts about the reliability of rapid testing, which remains the most convenient form of testing for the general public – and for business owners.
Indeed, for many small businesses, the answers to these questions will be pivotal. However, answering these questions requires at least a minimal knowledge of viral testing and there has been a pitiful lack of accessible information. As part of our campaign to empower small businesses during the pandemic, we thought it might be useful to produce this short and simple introduction to viral testing.
Let’s start with the absolute basics. A virus is parasitic, meaning it cannot survive without a host. Its host is a cell. A virus is chiefly composed of two elements: a nucleic acid molecule and a protein shell. ‘Nucleic acid’ might sound familiar to you, a distant memory from a school classroom where you were given a lecture on DNA – the ‘secret ingredient of life’. It is this element of a virus that is responsible for the replication which can make them so dangerous.
In order for a virus to replicate, though, it must attach itself to a cell – its host. This is where the protein shell comes in. Think about all of those images of the COVID-19 virus that you will have seen on the news or in articles or on the government’s public safety posters that are now dotted all over the place. The virus has a bunch of ‘spikes’ sticking out of it, right? Well, these are part of the protein shell and they’re the virus’ way of gaining access to a cell.
They are also what attracts the attention of the body’s immune system. When the body produces antibodies against a virus, it is these protein ‘spikes’ which they are designed to hunt out. This brings us to the first of the two major forms of COVID-19 tests: the antibody test. In an antibody test – like our rapid antibody test -, the filter paper onto which the blood-sample is placed already contains proteins extracted from the COVID-19 virus. If you have the relevant antibodies in your blood, they will react with the proteins on the paper, producing the marks that can be seen on this test from one of our customers:
Antibody tests have come under fire in the past few months for a number of reasons. (We have a whole blog on the topic, if you’re interested.) But the main concerns revolved around the sensitivity of the tests. Firstly, it takes a while for detectable levels of antibodies to be produced, meaning that antibody tests do not give us a totally comprehensive picture of who currently has the virus. Similarly, in the other direction, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when the levels of antibodies cease to be detectable and whether this has any bearing on immunity, for example. Take a look at this diagram:
However, the picture used above is of a test taken by one of our customers, whose husband had symptoms over 60 days ago, which means that antibody testing might be reliable far beyond the limit previously assumed.
So, what is different about an antigen test? Instead of testing for antibodies which fight the virus, antigen tests are able to detect the genetic material of the virus, that nucleic acid we discussed earlier. Because this genetic material is present as soon as someone is infected, antigen tests offer a more comprehensive picture of who currently has the virus than do antibody tests. However, antigen tests cannot give us information on who has had the virus in the past, which is the added benefit of antibody tests. Such a hard limit to the testing window is reflected in the NHS’ guidance on getting one of their antigen tests:
We hope that this information clears up a few misconceptions about testing and gives you the confidence to lead your business through the current challenges. For more information, and to view our range of health and safety products, check out our website.
Last Monday, Boris Johnson explained that whereas the rest of country will have opened up by July 4th, Leicester will remain locked down. This came as a surprise to many and added a sour note to the triumphal announcements of the past few weeks. It certainly came as a surprise to Leicester Mayor Peter Soulsby who took to Sky News to express scepticism regarding the government’s decision, claiming that the disproportionate rise in the number of cases is a direct result of disproportionate testing.
In any case, what is the government’s reasoning for extending the lockdown in Leicester? Well, according to findings from Public Health England, which recently added a regional dimension to its monitoring of COVID-19 cases, Leicester saw a surge in the fortnight following June 8th, an increase of 900 cases. During this period, confirmed cases in Leicester accounted for 1 in 16 positive tests. There have been reports of school closures as well as problems with a number of workplaces in the preceding weeks – Health Secretary Matt Hancock singled out clothing factories in the area as particular hot-spots. Concerns have also been raised over the effects of local Black Lives Matter protests.
For the people of Leicester, these announcements are disturbing. Our thoughts are with them. For the rest of us, the Leicester lockdown serves as a reminder that our own individual responses to the pandemic remain important, especially those of us who run businesses.
The Leicester lockdown also raises questions about the potential use of these measures for other areas. The reports from Public Health England which identified the rapid uptick in Leicester also registered comparable rates of activity in the West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester regions. The BBC graphed these readings:
Importantly, Leicester is not the first city to be subject to what Boris Johnson referred to as the government’s “whack-a-mole strategy”. Outbreaks linked to a hospital in Weston-super-Mare, a meat-packing factory in Cleckheaton and a number of GP surgeries in London lead to similar local lockdowns.
Clearly, as the Prime Minister has said, “we are not out of the woods yet”. A few weeks ago, we compiled some of the guidance on workplace health and safety, filling in the gaps with regard to preventing against infection. Understanding the risks to your employees and how to mitigate them is now more important than ever.
For more information and to view our range of workplace safety products, including rapid COVID-19 test kits, visit our website.
On Thursday, the not-for-profit research organisation Cochrane released their report on the efficacy of antibody testing in detecting COVID-19. As an internationally-recognised institution, Cochrane’s verdict has been eagerly awaited – and with the rise of antibody testing around Europe that we wrote about last week, this report could have serious ramifications for a number of governments.
The headline finding from the report is that only 30% of those with COVID-19 received a positive test within the first week of infection. A number of explanations have been advanced. One explanation is that it is simply too early for the body to have created a detectable number of antibodies. Yet, if we wait until the third week of infection, 90% of infected people return a positive test, so there is no doubt that the tests work. The problem is that the tests aren’t as effective as antigen tests – like those which can be obtained from the NHS here – in identifying whether you currently have the virus in the early stages.
But is this really all that shocking? Antibody testing was never meant to replace antigen testing because it serves a different purpose. As viral immunologist Zania Stamataki explains, antigen testing cannot indicate how far along the patient might be in their fight against COVID-19, cannot identify those that have had the virus but are no longer infected and therefore cannot aid in monitoring levels of immunity within a country. It is also worth noting that as of right now, there are no rapid antigen tests available, whereas there are a number of such antibody tests – one of which is available for purchase on our website. This means that whilst results in the first week or so might not be incredibly reliable, antibody tests still represent the most convenient option for the public.
So: using an antibody test to identify whether you have the virus immediately after the onset of symptoms is perhaps not the most effective response. However, antibody testing should always be regarded as only one aspect of a workplace’s procedure for detecting infection. This is why Lab Solutions’ Return2Work, our COVID-19 response kit, comes with an external thermometer. If an employee displays symptoms, identifying whether they coincide with a high temperature will give a good initial indication of their health. If a high temperature is discovered, it should be protocol to send the employee home to self-isolate for at least seven days. At this point, equipping your employee with a number of antibody tests remains crucial. This well help them more closely monitor their situation and make an informed decision on when it is safe for them to return to work.
For more information on our COVID-19 product range, visit our website.
Over the last few days, the situation in the UK has radically changed. Following the Prime Minister’s announcements in the House of Commons on Tuesday, all sorts of small businesses must be prepared to reopen on 4thJuly.
Whilst, undoubtedly, this news will be triumphantly received by many small businesses, this is no simplistic return to a pre-COVID-19 economy. The key feature of this new phase is the change to the so-called “two-metre rule” – a measure which has become an unquestioned aspect of daily life for many. Now, Britons are only required to remain one metre apart. Such a rule is precisely designed to restart the economy. Many of the SMEs which are due to reopen, like hotels, restaurants, pubs, hairdressers, cinemas and theatres, all require a certain degree of proximity.
However, some have raised concerns. The main issue is that no matter how far people remain apart, the use of PPE remains by far the most effective behaviour in combatting infection. In this way, the reduction to one metre should not be read as an invitation to negligence. It is, on the contrary, more important than ever to generalise the use of PPE in public spaces.
Indeed, all of the new rules should be read in this way. There is still a risk – perhaps a more significant risk than is alleged by the government, according to some health-care professionals – that infection rates will increase once more. Now more than ever in this crisis, the British public are being trusted with the health of the nation. SMEs, especially, are being trusted. This is why, on the Lab Solutions blog, there are a number of short posts detailing the measures that SMEs can take to prevent infection. If you can over the next few days, take a moment to check them out.
If you are in need of PPE or other tools for keeping your workplace safe, visit our website.
Recently, it has been reported that antibody testing could become more widespread in Europe and the United States as various governments begin to consider ways to ease the lockdown.
Antibody tests are designed to test whether someone has had a virus in the past. If you have had a certain virus, your immune system will have developed specific antibodies which can be identified by these tests, which range from swab tests to blood tests. Usually, having these antibodies grants the person at least a period of immunity against the virus. It is for this reason that antibody tests for COVID-19 are now being widely considered, since a positive antibody test might then enable the person to return to work. Antibody testing on a large scale could be the key to easing the lockdown and restarting the economy.
At the beginning of June, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its first authorisation for an antibody blood test. As might be known to those in the field, the FDA sets a near-global standard for commercial pharmaceuticals which means that many other countries should soon be following suit.
Similarly, the UK government has been slowly increasing its antibody testing and commercial enterprises throughout the country have begun to offer their own as well. At Lab Solutions, we have recently released Return2Work, a COVID-19 response kit which includes surgical gloves and masks, an external thermometer for monitoring temperatures and a simple antibody blood test.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that the government are considering so-called ‘immunity certificates’ that would be awarded in the event of a positive antibody test and entitle the certificate-holder to return to work, among other privileges. However, the German government – who have been ahead of the UK in using antibody tests – raised concerns when they were considering a similar idea last month. The main concern is that it would create a two-tier system, leading to community resentments that might negate the positive benefits of the scheme.
For further information on our test kits, take a look at our website.
As an SME, we’ve been eager to find information on managing the risks to our employees’ health. Luckily, there are a number of resources available to small businesses who have already re-opened or are set to reopen in the coming weeks.
Much of the guidance focusses on changes to work-flow or organisation. For example, maintaining social distancing is an essential requirement for any business operating in the near-future, so you might consider bright floor-markers which guide your employees through their procedures whilst ensuring they are two metres apart. Similarly, the cleaning of surfaces will have to occur more frequently, prompting suggestions to reduce working hours in order to maintain this necessarily high standard of cleanliness.
In addition to these sorts of changes, improvements in personal hygiene practices while at work will also be required. Instituting protocols such as frequent hand-washing (especially in workplaces which will be serving customers in person), the tying up of long hair and, where possible, a strict separation of work materials between employees, i.e. distributing digital copies of documents instead of sharing physical ones, attempting not to share pens, keyboards, mugs, chairs, etc. A determining factor in the efficacy of these measures appears to be generalising the use of PPE within your workplace.
One of the most important aspects of new workplace practice is the protocol for determining and reacting to the infection of an employee. Yet, this is a discussion missing from many of the available guides and checklists.
At Lab Solutions, we had an idea. If small businesses had some convenient means to detect infection, they might be able to respond quickly enough to prevent further contamination. That’s why we’re offering Return2Work, a COVID-19 response kit which includes surgical gloves, masks, an external thermometer and a quick blood-test.
Alongside all the other preventative measures that have been outlined so far, Return2Work’s external thermometer in particular might be a helpful addition to your new health and safety procedures. For example, by monitoring the temperatures of employees as they enter work at the beginning of the day and leave at the end, you can stay abreast of any stark increases. These measurements will then indicate whether someone needs to use Return2Work’s quick blood-test, which will confirm whether the temperature increase is a result of COVID-19.
Staying aware in this way gives you the freedom to be versatile in your health and safety procedures, tightening or loosening your protocols depending on the results of tests. This versatility is possible because Return2Work gives you both greater power to prevent and respond to infection.
If you feel that Return2Work might be useful for your business or would like further information, visit our website.
As the country prepares to return to work over the next few months, many small businesses are wary of the risks that doing so poses to their employees. At Lab Solutions, we’ve been eager to find some information on mitigating these risks. Luckily, we found a number of online resources that can provide you with both legal guidance and practical advice.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has released a number of downloadable guides for businesses in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These guides relate to a number of specific industries and workplaces. Depending on the nature and size of your business, then, you may have to use a few of these guides in combination. Different guidance is available for education and childcare as well as the transport industry.
Alongside specific guidance for different sectors, a more general checklist has been released. Of primary importance, the checklist states, is carrying out a COVID-19 risk assessment that meets the criteria of the Health and Safety Executive. The organisation has published these criteria alongside further information on generalising hygiene procedures, maintaining social distancing and other practices to ensure the safety of your workplace in this guide.
In response to these guidelines, the Federation of Small Businesses has published its own advice to ensure that you have the resources to implement them in an even more diverse range of workplaces. For example, their health and safety checklist includes a discussion of customer safety which considers the possibilities for maintaining social distancing and minimising surface-transmission by altering the layout of your workplace, i.e. separating exit and entrance doors or shifting to a kiosk-style, semi-outdoor way of serving where possible.
Similarly, the Federation’s Legal Hub – for which you’ll need an account with the organisation – provides free risk assessment templates as well as updates and guidance on the specifics of the law regarding business practices as it evolves over the coming months. Indeed, both the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Federation of Small Businesses offer an invaluable service as news sources for companies at this time.
Using these guides and checklists, we have been able to adapt our business to this new economy without serious losses to productivity and the breadth of information available means that whatever your business, you can adapt, too. Why wait?