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Thursday, September 16, 2021

The curious Covid paradox that is stopping ministers from encouraging us back to work

There is no work from home order from the Prime Minister, but nor is he enthusiastically urging Britain’s army of office workers to return to their desks.

Indeed, the Government’s official guidance to employers remains vaguely threatening: “Yes, by all means invite your workers back but remember: it’s at your own risk”, is the general tone.

You may think this odd given that GDP remains a full two percentage points below pre-pandemic levels and so many office districts remain disconcertingly quiet. The UK now has fewer Covid-19 restrictions in place than any of our major European competitors, but we also have many more people still hibernating at home.

“Lots of people, probably the great majority of people, are taking measures [of their own],” noted Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, at Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference. Sir Partick Vallance, the Chief Scientific officer, agreed. Somehow we have ended up with more freedoms in Britain than elsewhere, yet less freedom.

Official documents published on Tuesday help explain the apparent paradox and underline why ministers are not exactly encouraging people back to desolate office blocks.

“There is a clear consensus that the continued high level of home working has played a very important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months,” says the latest consensus statement from the Sage modelling group, SPI-M.

“It is highly likely that a significant decrease in home working in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions,” it adds.

The minutes from the latest Sage meeting of September 9 make a similar point: “Key uncertainties include the potential impact of any waning of immunity and any significant changes in contact patterns associated with increased attendance at workplaces and reopening of education settings.”

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