Government gamble on working from home risks creating a two-tier Britain

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A worker walks through an all but deserted City of London during the first lockdown. Last year, Boris Johnson was at pains to encourage people back to the office amid dire predictions about the cost of them staying away - Tolga Akmen/AFP
A worker walks through an all but deserted City of London during the first lockdown. Last year, Boris Johnson was at pains to encourage people back to the office amid dire predictions about the cost of them staying away - Tolga Akmen/AFP

When the Government this week set out its plans to move to the next stage of lockdown release, it was clear that a critical shift in its pandemic response had occurred.

Far from expecting commuters to return to their desks, as had happened at the end of the last two lockdowns, government experts are now gambling on the fact that many will continue working from home and keep to restrictions even when they are no longer mandated.

The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) forecasts that the size of any resurgence will be reduced by "baseline measures and behaviour" which occur "largely voluntarily" after the full release of restrictions scheduled for June 21.

SPI-M says these could "reflect more permanent societal shifts, such as the extent of home working and the amount of work-related travel".

Boris Johnson echoed the sentiment at Monday's press conference when he said the country would soon "cease to rely on detailed government edicts" and "learn to live responsibly with Covid".

It is unclear why the Government is no longer keen to see life return to the pre-pandemic norm. In July, Mr Johnson was at pains to encourage workers back to the office amid dire predictions about the cost to the economy of them staying away.

However, behavioral scientists have warned of a "deep shelter mentality" that will make people reluctant to leave home even after the current restrictions have been lifted.

And research from the government’s Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) in February warned: "Any lifting of interventions is likely to be met with a cautious response by many people. While many people will return to previous activities where permitted, some will continue to be concerned about doing this."

A recent poll by Ipsos Mori also found that more than one third of Britons are not expecting life to return to normal until 2022.

Summing up the new approach at Monday's press conference, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said: "What the modellers have done is made an assumption that there is still some residual reduction in transmission.

"That's due to a number of things. There will still be people who are working from home who can work from home and it's wise for their businesses to do so."

While most people made contact with 11 others on an average day before the pandemic, that had since fallen to four and "will probably remain down for a while to come", he added.

Data from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's CoMix social cotact survey, which has been monitoring interactions since the beginning of first lockdown, shows that even when people could meet up in greater numbers last year, they chose not to. Contact levels peaked at six

Professor John Edmunds, of LSHTM, told The Telegraph: "We've all made assumptions that we wouldn’t go back to fully normal behaviours. We were only looking to the end of September, but we didn’t think it was likely we would go completely back to normal and that would make a difference.

"After the first lockdown, we went through these stages of releasing people, and the big step was on July 4 when pubs, and barbers and soft play opened. But if you look at contact behaviour, people stayed very cautious and it took until August to start seeing more contact. So I think people will remain very cautious."

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) may also be partly responsible for spooking the Government into not wanting a return to the pre-pandemic rat race.

Swab testing between Oct 3 and April 16 showed that people who travelled to work were up to twice as likely to test positive for Covid than individuals working from home.

Yet there was no increase in people using public transport compared to a car, and regular swab surveys by TFL have found no traces of Covid in buses and trains, suggesting it is workplaces themselves that are causing the spread.

So far from encouraging people back to normal, the Government is hoping a residual climate of fear will help keep cases down. Senior scientists say it is likely there will be some kind of campaign in the autumn and winter to encourage people to stay at home if they are ill and avoid a culture of presenteeism.

Yet there are problems with such an approach. Last October, Andy Haldane, the Bank of England's chief economist, warned that working from home is damaging Britain's creative potential and could harm personal wellbeing and the economy if maintained in the long term.

Associate professor Dr Derek Watson, from the University of Sunderland, told The Telegraph: "Long-term working from home may well offer employees the discretion and flexibility to more readily pace their work.

"On the flip side, recent research has suggested home workers have feelings of cabin fever, career stagnation, cramped home working environments, lines between personal and work life morphing together, forced childcare and strained relations."

One of the reasons the Government ordered white-collar workers back to offices in the first place was to help revive struggling city centres, which rely heavily on servicing Britain's office staff.

There is considerable regional variation in home working. Around 46.6 per cent of people did some work from home in 2020, but that rose to 57.2 per cent for Londoners and fell to 35.3 per cent in the West Midlands.

Analysis has shown that workplace outbreaks are more likely to occur in manufacturing sectors and warehouses, so is no coincidence that areas such as the West Midlands – which relies heavily on manufacturing jobs – remained in lockdown measures for much of last year.

So encouraging work from home risks creating a two-tier Britain in which the communities with more manufacturing and key worker jobs will be left at greater risk from Covid than predominantly richer areas in which professionals can work from home.

The Government's gamble may pay off, allowing many to escape the gruelling daily commute. But we must be careful that communities in traditional sectors are not left behind.

Will encouraging working from home only entrench inequality further? Share your view in the comments section below
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