Covid: Should the work from home mandate return?

·7 min read
A person works from home  (Getty Images)
A person works from home (Getty Images)

Almost a year after the first Covid-19 vaccine was approved for use in the UK, cases of the virus are still climbing.

On Wednesday, 20 October, the government recorded 49,139 new infections and 179 deaths from the disease – the same day that health secretary Sajid Javid told a press conference that the number of people dying from the virus “remains mercifully low”.

Speaking from Downing Street, Javid said the government had decided against implementing “Plan B” – a set of measures which would see the return of compulsory mask-wearing in some settings, asking people to work from home and potentially introducing vaccine passports.

In July, the government eased all remaining social distancing restrictions that were implemented over the course of the first 18 months of the pandemic.

While Javid insisted that the government was not reinforcing any measures at this time, he warned that if the public wants to “secure these freedoms”, they should “think about what [they] can do to make a difference”.

“There are many more things we can all do to help contain the spread of the virus, like meeting outdoors where it’s possible and, if you can, only meet indoors, letting in fresh air,” he said.

He said people should wear a face-covering in crowded and closed spaces, especially if they are coming in to contact with people they don’t normally meet.

The decision has been criticised by doctors, with the NHS warning that enacting “Plan B” is vital if the government wants to “avoid stumbling into winter crisis”.

In a statement issued earlier this week, the NHS Confederation said introducing a mask mandate and asking people to work from home should happen “sooner rather than later”. It said these practices are “already common in parts of Europe where the prevalence of the disease is lower”.

The British Medical Association has also voiced concerns and has accused the government of being “wilfully negligent”.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the association, told the BBC that the government has “taken its foot off the brake” and that the time for action “is now”.

“It is wilfully negligent of the Westminster government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of infection,” he added.

One significant change that could happen under Plan B measures is the reinforcement of a work from home mandate. While experts agree that this would limit the spread of the virus, what are the other elements the government is taking into consideration?

What are the current rules around working from home?

Since the government lifted the remainder of Covid-19 restrictions on 19 July, people are no longer required to work from home.

However, businesses were asked to support a “safe return to work” and to give extra consideration to people who are at higher risk of getting seriously ill from the virus.

Under government guidelines, companies should ensure offices are well ventilated and regularly cleaned.

They should also “mitigate the risk” of the virus by “reducing the number of people workers come into contact with”, but there is no legal obligation for them to do this.

Should the government ask people to work from home?

In September, professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told the BBC that working from home could be an “important and effective” way to curb the spread of Covid-19 this winter.

Sarah Pitt, a chief examiner in virology at the Institute of Biomedical Science agreed with Hayward’s comment, telling The Independent that any measure which limits the contact people have with each other helps stop the spread.

“Plenty of offices still have social distances measures in place, but if you’re going into the office, you are still coming into contact with people who are not in your normal social bubble or in your household, and the opportunity to spread the virus is increased,” she said.

There is also the risk of the virus spreading on people’s daily commute to the office. According to the London Assembly, around two million people use the Tube every day.

“People are cramming into trains with no social distancing and nothing to stop the virus from being spread around,” Pitt said.

“Potentially, you’re picking up the virus on the train into work, then giving it to your work colleagues and then taking it back home again.”

Another point of worry, Pitt said, is the number of people who may have the virus and spread it unknowingly, because they are asymptomatic.

“In people who have had the vaccine and catch the virus, we think one in two might not have symptoms.

“So, half the time you have the virus and have an active infection, you can pass it onto people, but you don’t actually know it,” she says.

How might bringing back the work from home mandate impact mental health?

The pandemic has led to a “mental health emergency”, England and Wales mental health charity Mind said.

According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, around one in six adults (17 per cent) experienced some form of depression this summer. This is almost double pre-pandemic levels when 10 per cent of adults said they had experienced depression.

This week, a new report by the City Mental Health Alliance found that the pandemic had a lasting impact on young professionals’ mental health and that it was impacting their ability to do their jobs well.

One young adult, an employee at the Bank of England who joined the company during lockdown, said working from home exacerbated his feelings of self-doubt and made him feel like he had to “prove himself” because he couldn’t see his colleagues.

Experts agree that employers need to find a balance between minimising the spread of the virus while looking after employees’ mental health.

“Some of us have found a total lifting of restrictions quite worrying, especially for those of who have had to shield and so working from home has brought flexibility and unexpected benefits,” Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind said.

“For others working remotely can be isolating, particularly during periods of lockdown, and so a return to work has been welcome,” she said.

Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester said that not seeing colleagues has a negative psychological impact on most people because our social needs are only met by human interaction.

“The office is also where a lot of young people get their own development, by talking to and learning from elder colleagues,” he added.

Mamo said employers should prioritise curbing the spread of the virus while having “open and transparent” conversations with employees.

“Organisations need to prepare for different scenarios, including a potential return to lockdown. This should involve making plans and sharing these with staff, while also reassuring staff that they are thinking this through and planning as best they can in these uncertain times,” she said.

What would be the impact on the economy?

In July 2020, Pret a Manger announced that it would permanently close 30 of its UK stores because of reduced footfall during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The chief executive of the chain, which is a hotspot for working lunches and breakfast on the go, said the pandemic had “taken away almost a decade of growth”.

That summer, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask people to return to the office, warning that many UK cities could become “ghost towns”.

“The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy. They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars,” Dame Carolyn Fairbairn wrote in a column for the Daily Mail.

“The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.”

This week, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC that restrictions imposed under Plan B could “jeopardise the hard-won gains” of reopening the economy.

“I don’t want to inject any hint of complacency but I think so far our approach is working,” he said.

Leslie Willcocks, a professor of work, technology and globalisation at the London School of Economics said the effect of a work from home mandate will depend on how it is enforced.

“A ‘work from home where you can’ mandate in itself would have little impact, especially as it would have the status of guidance,” he said.

While a return to the office had meant more business for eating and drinking venues and more money spent on travel, Willcocks said the “government is too political in its decision-making on health issues”.

“Giving people freedom to act does not seem to be giving people freedom from Covid-19,” he said.

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