The government has scrapped rules limiting the availability of free Covid tests to food companies with more than 50 employees.
The Grocer has learnt smaller companies will now be able to access the lateral flow kits, if they register before the end of March
The move to expand the scheme to thousands of smaller companies comes amid continued concerns over a slow take-up for the tests, with fewer than 150 companies believed to have registered since it was rolled out in January.
Previously companies with fewer than 50 employees had been told their staff would have to use local authority mass testing facilities, despite the FDF warning as many as four in five companies in the food supply chain could be in that category.
As reported by The Grocer last week, The Department of Health and Defra have also been trialling a new “consortium model” allowing smaller companies located in close proximity to each other, in locations such as industrial estates, to pool resources to carry out tests.
However, in the past week, restrictions on the sizes have been dropped.
“There has been relatively slow take-up of the tests, which the government is concerned about,” said a source. “The decision to drop the 50-plus limit was made in the last week in the hope that it can get more companies to come forward, otherwise there is a danger that many thosuands of tests will sit there unused.”
Another industry source involved in talks with the government added: “Getting rid of the 50-plus threshold will make it easier to have mass testing in all food businesses.
“Being told to use community service was a big issue in convenience. That’s a big challenge if you have 20 people on shifts or miles from the community centre.”
The government is also coming under increasing pressure to allow the industry to carry out more tests at home, with separate testing kits due to be more widely rolled out later this month. However, sources have stressed that at-work testing is seen as the most accurate and the best way to maximise uptake.
Major differences in the rollout of the testing have also emerged between England and Scotland, where the SNP government has pledged to indefinitely fund free testing for businesses, while funding from the UK government is due to be withdrawn at the end of June.
However, the Scottish government has been far stricter in the number of companies allowed access to testing.
Sources say ministers in Westminster are coming under pressure to extend the timeframe for funding, with the situation over how long tests will be needed still unclear.