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.”
The expert committee reiterated the importance of “acting early” with Plan B (more restrictions) if things began moving in the wrong direction. “Early, ‘low-cost’ interventions may forestall need for more disruptive measures and avoid an unacceptable level of hospitalisations,” it said.
The committee then pointedly noted: “European comparators with similar levels of vaccination have maintained more interventions (masks, vaccine certification, work from home) than the UK and are seeing their epidemics decline.”
It could have added that countries such as Germany and France also have many more people back at their desks and far fewer cooped up at home. The latest CoMix survey results show contacts between individuals in England remain at less than half their pre-pandemic levels, mainly driven by empty offices.
Lower transport costs on the continent are thought to explain part of the difference but basic hygiene measures such as mask wearing and Covid-19 passports may also be building consumer and commuter confidence there.
“When in France I was far more social and spent more money out and about because I felt safer to do so thanks to masking indoors and vax passes,” noted one British tourist on Twitter after returning home this week.
How things will play out in the UK over the next few weeks and months may hinge on how many homebound workers return to the office and at what pace.
“The actual epidemic trajectory over autumn and winter will depend on whether contact patterns continue to increase at the same [currently slow] rate; it is quite possible that any future scenarios may be ruled in or out quite rapidly,” warns SPI-M.
Data from the modellers released on Tuesday suggests if the R number stays at its current level of around 1.1, then daily hospitalisations in England will peak around 1,800 in October – something that should be manageable.
However, a small increase in the R to 1.5 could see more than 6,000 hospitalisations every day, far exceeding the peak of 4,600 seen in January.
Britain is currently “one of most free societies and most open economies in Europe”, noted the Prime Minister at the press briefing on Tuesday. He’s technically right, but Britain is still far from normal. He will also be hoping we don’t all take full advantage of the freedoms just yet.