Why it works: regular testing is the best protection against retail disruption

By Alex Sheppard, co-founder of Vatic, the creator of KnowNow, a saliva-only rapid antigen test for Covid-19

Sheppard: Vatic is the only UK health company to be granted the CE mark of approval for a saliva-only rapid COVID test

There’s a sense of expectation around the country because, despite a four-week delay, we’re on the cusp of returning to a normal post-COVID-19 life. For many people, a big part of that normality will be the chance to ditch the masks and social distancing restrictions, whether thats mixing socially in bars and restaurants or heading out to the shops for some much-needed retail therapy. And after struggling to survive during lockdown, the UK town and city centres are looking forward to a surge in numbers to revive their businesses’ bottom line.

Saliva-based lateral flow tests can be quickly and easily self-administered by employees before they leave home

So the last thing any retailer wants right now is for their business to be disrupted by staff shortages due to Covid. Preparing to fully open up again means properly protecting employees from what’s still a potentially hostile environment.

Why so? Isn’t the worst of the pandemic over, at least in the UK? That’s hopefully the case, but the virus certainly hasn’t gone away. In fact, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be around in one form or another for the foreseeable future. While the NHS’s vaccination programme has been a great success, regular COVID testing still needs to be an essential part of any retailer’s business strategy going forward.

Stated baldly, it’s inevitable that some of your customers will pose a threat to your staff, because statistically a number of them will be infected. And it only takes a few cases among key employees for your business to suddenly be on the back foot just as you need it to be operating at full strength. And even for those employees who are fully vaccinated, it’s still not an absolute guarantee that they can’t catch the virus.

Shops are compact indoor environments, with a significant density of people inside during busy periods, and can often be difficult to ventilate properly – in other words, prime infection vectors. But of course, it’s not just the customer-facing front-end that retailers need to worry about – any Covid-induced breakdown in their operation, from head office to the warehouse, could throw a major spanner in the works of their recovery.

Covid protection strategies

Vatic is easy and comfortable to use

So what should a sensible COVID protection strategy look like? Incentivising employee diligence is a good start by amending sick leave policies to ensure full payment for employees who cannot work due to self-isolation. Reconfiguring physical workspaces to create more space for employees, or investing in improved ventilation, are also smart ways to reduce the possibility of Covid-related interruption further down the line.

Vatic is less likely to provide unclear or inaccurate results

But ultimately, the priority needs to be regular employee testing. Stopping COVID-positive staff from setting foot in the workplace is the best way to halt its spread. Yet unlike earlier testing regimes, many of which have fallen by the wayside due to their inconvenience and unpopularity, better and less invasive alternatives now exist. 

Mass testing doesn’t have to mean staff standing in the car park for half an hour each morning, waiting for a health professional to carry out an uncomfortable throat/nostril procedure. Instead, saliva-based lateral flow tests can be quickly and easily self-administered by employees before they leave home. They take just minutes to deliver an accurate result, and each test generates its own unique QR code that can be scanned and checked before they enter the workplace.

CE mark approval

Vatic tests take just minutes to deliver an accurate result

Vatic produces the KnowNow test (www.knownow.com) and is the only UK health company to be granted the CE mark of approval for a saliva-only rapid COVID test. Using only a saliva swab, a bit like brushing your teeth, Vatic is easy and comfortable to use, and as a result, less likely to provide unclear or inaccurate results. Some of the UK’s top airports, travel firms, entertainment venues, hotels and care home groups are already running KnowNow trials to help get their businesses back up and running. 

Vatic founders Alex Sheppard and Dr Mona Kab Omir

Many of the retailers I’ve spoken to in recent weeks also recognise that getting their COVID protection strategy right could give them a vital competitive edge over the next 12 months. Given the uncertainty and confusion about what will happen next with the virus, some of their rivals will almost certainly underestimate the risk, putting in jeopardy their ability to operate continuously and without disruption. It’s another compelling argument in favour of ongoing testing.

Retailers that get on the front foot now with employee testing and other enhanced protection policies will be far better placed to carry on working come what may. The post-pandemic world, for the foreseeable future, will involve living with COVID and managing it effectively. Testing can not only help prevent its spread, but should be a key part of any retailer’s business continuity strategy going forward.