More employers are now eligible to participate in the government’s workplace testing scheme, following health secretary Matt Hancock’s announcement that the programme will be opened up to smaller employers.

As of yesterday (7 February), all businesses with more than 50 employees are able to join the rapid workplace testing scheme, which makes 30-minute lateral flow tests available to individuals without symptoms who can’t work from home. Previously, only employers with more than 250 employees were able to participate.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Hancock urged all eligible organisations to join the programme. “For our small and medium-sized businesses, rapid testing can make a massive difference,” he said. “If you show up to work and test positive, you can isolate immediately. If you test negative, you simply get on with your day.”

Hancock added that workplaces that had introduced regular testing found they could “plan with more certainty” and “spot cases before they take out a whole team”.

Around one in three people who have coronavirus have no symptoms and unknowingly spread the virus, a major concern for industries wherein workers are unlikely to be able to work from homes, such as construction and manufacturing.

So far, 112 UK organisations across almost 500 sites have joined the government’s testing programme. A new online portal has been launched as part of the drive to get private sector companies to sign up.

The news comes amid fierce debate around whether employers can or should make vaccination mandatory – with Telegraph reports suggesting some government ministers believe employers would be protected by current health and safety laws if they insisted employees have the vaccine before coming to work.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme this morning (8 February), Edward Argar, secretary of state for health, would not say whether or not employers would be protected by law if they insisted on vaccinations.

But, he said: “I am not saying to anyone they should be mandating or making particular activities contingent upon having the jab. That’s not how we do things in this country. There are plenty of routes to make sure that workplaces are safe and Covid secure.”

Commenting on the row, Emma Swan, partner and head of commercial employment at Forbes Solicitors, strongly advised employers against travelling such a route. “Companies would be best placed to take a neutral approach towards the inoculation of the vaccine and avoid offering any form of guidance or viewpoint on it,” she said.

“By doing so, they can help safeguard working cultures, policies and processes against any potential vaccine bias, which may well be deemed inappropriate, unreasonable or unfair in a tribunal. If employees ask for advice about the vaccine, employers may want to direct workers towards consulting their GP and the NHS.”