Advice to work from home could return this autumn if Covid-19 hospitalisations put significant pressure on the NHS and the government needs to trigger ‘plan B’.
In its Covid-19 response: autumn and winter plan 2021 document, published yesterday, the government said it would take whatever action necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, but more harmful economic and social restrictions – such as shop closures or lockdowns – would only be considered as a last resort.
This could mean that working from home may be encouraged again if Covid-19 hospitalisations rise, with the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) stating that home working is one of the most effective measures at reducing the spread of Covid-19.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Sage adviser Professor Andrew Hayward said: “The most important effective way of reducing the spread of the virus is not to be in contact with other people. [This could mean] people who can work from home continuing to work from home, not having to get on public transport, not doing all the things you do around work [which] will make a significant difference in transmission if we get into trouble.”
The autumn and winter plan 2021 document says: “SPI-M (the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling) and Sage have advised that high levels of homeworking have played a very important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months.
Home or hybrid working
“If the government were to re-introduce this measure it would be seeking to reduce the transmission risk inside and outside of the workplace, including by reducing the number of people taking public transport and the number of face to face meetings and social activities, and thereby reducing community and household transmission.”
It says the REACT survey from Imperial College London found that those who were working from home were less likely to test positive for Covid-19 than those who left their homes to work in February 2021.
However, the document states that some of the drawbacks of homeworking would need to be considered, for example inadequate working conditions for younger employees and the mental health impact of fewer social interactions on those living alone.
It says: “Some businesses have reported that productivity has either remained the same or increased, owing to benefits such as a happier workforce and reduced overheads (for example, in spending on office space). However, other businesses report that prescriptive working from home guidance poses challenges, such as hampering the exchange of ideas, stifling creativity and hindering collaboration.”
The most important effective way of reducing the spread of the virus is not to be in contact with other people. [This could mean] people who can work from home continuing to work from home” – Prof Andrew Hayward, Sage
Health secretary Sajid Javid has said there was not a “single trigger” that would result in the government tightening Covid restrictions, but it would look closely at how the NHS was coping.
The most recent government data shows that 8,281 people were in hospitals in England with Covid-19 on 10 September. Around 13,900 people were in hospital with the virus on when the second national lockdown in England began on 5 November 2020. On 13 September 2021, 1,056 were in mechanical ventilation beds in hospitals in England, compared with 1,183 on 5 November 2020.
In order to keep workplaces open and help people feel confident about living with the virus, CBI policy director Matthew Fell said the government should support businesses to utilise Covid secure tools, from good hygiene and ventilation processes to the use of face coverings.
“Finally, confidence requires certainty. Clear forward guidance for firms about what measures will be introduced under Plan B should infection rates rise will maximise their ability to plan with certainty. Transparency about how and when those decisions will be made is essential,” he said.
Tania Bowers, legal counsel and head of public policy at the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) said the uncertainty could affect business confidence, particularly around hiring.
“The preparations of a ‘Plan B’ which could see stricter restrictions imposed at short notice is understandable given the constantly shifting nature of the virus, however the high level of speculation creates uncertainty for businesses. There is also no clarity around the furlough scheme being reintroduced should emergency measures be put back into place,” she said.
“Government policy can have unintended effects on the economy – labour shortages arising from the “pingdemic”, for example – and we are seeing skills and labour shortages across all of our members’ sectors, something neither the Government, nor our industry would have expected this time last year. The Government must balance the implementation of the plans with the need to provide clear guidance to boost business confidence and to support workers filling job vacancies.”