End of working from home could cause Covid surge, experts say

Commuting and after-work drinks could contribute towards sharp rise in infections

Commuters cross London Bridge towards the City of London on September 13, 2021. Photo: Bloomberg
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People returning to offices en masse could lead to a “rapid” increase of transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19, an expert has said.

Graham Medley, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said there could be outbreaks as colleagues are reunited.

Under the UK government’s so-called “Plan B” of how to manage coronavirus cases over the winter, advice to work from home could return if the National Health Service comes under unstainable pressure.

A document that informed the government’s decision making, from the advisory group SPI-M-O, said the early use of measures to control spread could cut the need for tougher measures later on.

Such tools could include the continuation of homeworking.

“There is a clear consensus that continued high levels of homeworking has played a very important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months,” the document said.

“It is highly likely that a significant decrease in homeworking in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions.”

Prof Medley, who is part of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, told a briefing for journalists that last month, where many people in England were working from home, the reproduction number in the country had remained “relatively flat”.

“It is uncertain what’s going to happen. We are still waiting for the full effect of schools reopening and potentially getting people going back to work to play through into the data, but I think we are unlikely to see the very high levels that we’ve seen in the past,” he said.

“What we have been doing in August has been enough to keep that reproduction number at one and that has still involved a lot of people not going back to the office, and that would seem to be a baseline measure that has some control on transmission.

“All those people who have been working from home for the past 18 months or so have not been making their normal contacts and it’s not just work.

“It’s the travel to and from work, the socialising after work, et cetera that people are not doing and those networks, if recreated all at once, then potentially could be a way in which the transmission could take off quite rapidly.

“What’s driving some of the uncertainty is, we don’t know how people are going to actually behave. And I’m sure we all have kind of anecdotal evidence of people who we know are going to continue working from home and other people who are itching to get back to the office and go for a drink in a pub afterwards.

“What we can’t know is what numbers of people will do that. And so that just adds to the uncertainty.

“But clearly, if we all go back tomorrow to full contact then we will end up with transmission increasing and potentially quite high, quite rapidly.”

Updated: September 14, 2021, 9:51 PM