Returning to work after PCR testing

returning to work after pcr testing occupational health news

Returning to work after “swab” testing

It’s generally been accepted that, if tested for COVID-19 with a “swab test” (the “do I have the virus now” test), employees should not return without knowing their results.

This is because of two main considerations:

  1. It may offer reassurance to the employee that they are fit to work.
  2. It may offer reassurance to other colleagues within the work environment that they are fit to return

One easy way to screen employees before they return to work is to create an online questionnaire or other tool that is filled in by the employee to certify that they are fit to return. Google Forms is a very quick and easy way to develop online questionnaires tailored to specific circumstances.

If you’re going to ask an employee if they have symptoms before allowing them back to work, it’s important to remember that a persistent, but not continuous cough, may continue for a fairly long time after an employee contracts the virus, even though they will no longer be infectious.

If an employee is PCR tested (the “swab test”) there will be one of three outcomes:

A negative result

a)       If the employee no longer has the most common symptoms – a high temperature, a continuous cough (coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours) or losing their sense of taste/smell for 24 hours they should be able to return to work.

b)      If the employee has ongoing symptoms they should continue to self-isolate until the isolation period is complete. It may be worth considering repeating the test. Medical help should always be sought immediately if the employee’s health worsens, or if they still have symptoms after five days.

A positive result

a)       The following steps are still needed to determine if an employee is fit to return:

i.      That they have completed seven days quarantine since they first had symptoms.

ii.      They have not had a high temperature or a continuous cough for 48 hours.

An inconclusive result

a)       If the test provides an inconclusive results, the employee should be retested at the earliest opportunity.

If any employee continues to remain unwell, they should remain in isolation until their symptoms have been absent for 48 hours.

Some people do seem to have ongoing symptoms, such as fatigue, and may feel unfit for to work for some time and consideration to the long term effects of a novel virus on the body is strongly advised. It may take some weeks for employees to recover from the virus and it may be some months before they are fully recovered. It should also be recognised that some may never recover their full health.

An occupational health assessment would generally be advised on a case-by-case basis if there are any ongoing symptoms which affect the employee’s ability to work. You can learn more about the occupational health assessment process here.

Advice to employers is likely to be amended as the “test, track and trace” service becomes fully operational, as individuals may be asked to undertake self-isolation and testing even though they don’t have any symptoms, based on the potential of having acquired COVID-19 via community transmission.

It is possible that employees may be required to self-isolate for seven or 14 days, depending on the level of contact they may have had with an infected person.


The government has provided a useful flowchart to help employers understand and manage the return to work process in these circumstances, which is freely available.

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