Workplaces

Mandatory Face Masks and Advice to Work From Home Should Be Reintroduced to Keep Figures “Under Control”, Say SAGE Scientists

Just how final was the July 19th “terminus date“? If Government advisers in SAGE have anything to do with it, then not at all. Some have argued that a number of restrictions, such as mandatory face masks and advice to work from home, should be brought back at the beginning of August if hospitalisation levels increase to keep the figures “under control”. And it’s hard to imagine the Government standing firm against this pressure, given that both a minister and the Chief Medical Officer have said Brits will “of course” face a new lockdown if the NHS comes under further pressure. The i has the story.

Scientific advisers have warned that Boris Johnson should be prepared to act in the first week of August to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed by the end of that month.

Modelling has suggested that the central case for U.K. daily hospitalisations at the peak of the third wave – expected at the end of August – could be between 1,000 and 2,000, with deaths predicted to be between 100 and 200 per day. …

Last week Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said hospitalisations were doubling roughly every three weeks. 

This would suggest close to 1,500 admissions by the end of the first week of August, well above the trajectory for the central case scenario for the third wave. It would point to 3,000 at the peak by the end of that month, which would match the peak of the first wave in April 2020.

Insiders stressed there is a lot of uncertainty in the modelling, and the picture will change all the time depending on vaccine take-up and people’s behaviour after July 19th.

But if admissions are outstripping the central estimates, SAGE scientists have advised that some non-pharmaceutical measures should be reintroduced, such as mandatory face masks and advice to work from home, in early August, halfway between the July 19th unlocking and the predicted peak at the end of August.

This early intervention, they argue, would prevent the NHS becoming swamped in a late summer crisis. …

Last week, when the Prime Minister gave the go-ahead for the fourth and final stage of the roadmap in England, he accepted that some restrictions may have to be reimposed if the situation worsened.

A source said what was needed was “less of an emergency brake and more of a gear change” in readiness to keep the third wave “under control”.

While mandatory face masks would be the “easiest” route to curb transmission, with minimal impact on the economy if it were kept to public transport and essential settings like supermarkets, this would have to be weighed against the “totemic” impact it would have on the public if they were ordered to cover up once again.

But others are arguing that the Government should be prepared to take tougher action.

Professor Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health for Blackburn, said: “Any return to non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to control spread would have to focus on those that give the biggest suppression effect. 

“Essentially we might expect a reverse through the lockdown lifting steps with each ‘reverse step’ being introduced to match the scale of the surge in cases.”

Worth reading in full.

Working from Home during Lockdown Caused Loneliness and Mental Distress

An increasing number of businesses, tempted by the prospect of saving on hefty office costs, are telling their staff to work from home at least some of the time. The Government believes this should become the “default” position for employees post-lockdown, despite research showing that working from home can not only reduce productivity but can also increase – and has increased – levels of loneliness and mental distress – even for those who do not live alone. The Observer has more.

With ministers still debating how to manage the return to workplaces in the wake of Covid restrictions, a study by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) found that the biggest increases in mental distress and loneliness during the pandemic were felt by the most isolated group – those working from home and living alone. However, in a finding that surprised researchers, people working from home and living with others also experienced a significant increase in loneliness not felt by those working outside the home.

Analysts examined data from interviews carried out with 8,675 people before the pandemic and in May, July and November 2020. They found that people able to work from home have been protected from financial difficulties that can drive poor mental health. When financial circumstances, loneliness and demographic characteristics were controlled for in the research, however, people working from home recorded bigger increases in mental distress.

“More of us than ever now work from home and use technology to replace many aspects of work previously done in person, but this cannot fully replicate the working environment for everyone,” said Isabel Taylor, Research Director at NatCen. “As the Government considers current working guidance, individuals, employers and government departments should be aware of the impact working from home is likely having on people’s mental health.”

People were first advised to work from home by the Government in March last year. A month later almost half of U.K. workers were working from home at least some of the time. While limited numbers of people have returned to their workplaces since, advice to work from home has continued into 2021.

The advice could end on July 19th, though a debate about the measure remains. Experts from SAGE have warned in official papers that some measures are “likely to be needed beyond the end of the current roadmap process” to avoid “the likelihood of having to reverse parts of the road map”.

Government sources have denied reports that it was drawing up plans to give workers the right to work from home for ever if they wished to do so. However, they are planning a shift towards greater flexibility for workers in the future. Even before the pandemic hit, the 2019 Conservative election manifesto vowed to “encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to”. …

The new NatCen paper states that there are other considerations that should be taken into account, including the interactions between colleagues and the clearer divide between work and personal lives that could be playing a part in its findings about mental health distress.

Worth reading in full.

Asda Moves Towards “Hybrid Working” for Office Staff

Asda has announced that its 4,000 head office staff will be allowed to work where they like in the near future, becoming the latest business giant to move away from office-based work amid suggestions that “hybrid working”, where staff work from home some of the time, could become the norm post-lockdown. BBC News has the story.

The supermarket group said staff at Asda House in Leeds and George House in Leicester can choose where they work.

Around 4,000 staff work at both offices, with the majority based in Leeds.

England is set to lift final Covid measures on July 19th and many businesses have indicated they will continue to allow flexible working.

However, not all companies plan to embrace a hybrid approach. Goldman Sachs International has said it wants people to come back into the office once restrictions have ended.

Asda said its new approach “will encourage colleagues to select the best location to do their job”, including home, head office or even a store or depot.

However, the company said the model would not work for all employees, such as those who need to have close contact with colleagues, like, for example, people who work in training.

But it said staff also “have the flexibility to work from home when it is more productive to do so, such as tasks that involve planning or research”. 

Asda’s plan is similar to one adopted by Nationwide, which will allow the building society’s 13,000 office employees to “work anywhere”. 

Nationwide is closing three offices in Swindon and the 3,000 staff based at those sites can either move to the nearby headquarters, work from home or mix the two. Some employees may be able to work from a local High Street branch if they prefer, instead of travelling to an office.

The “hybrid working” approach is likely favoured because of its cost-cutting benefits. However, some are concerned that working from home reduces levels of productivity.

The BBC News report is worth reading in full.

Government Considering Making Working from Home “Default” Option

Workspace provider IWG (formerly Regus) said in March that, after lockdown, “hybrid working”, where staff work from home some of the time, will become “the norm”. With the Government confirming on Thursday that it is considering making working from home (WFH) the “default” position by giving employees the right to request it, we are a step closer to this. The Guardian has the story.

Responding to reports that ministers could change the law, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said a flexible working taskforce was examining how best to proceed.

“What we’re consulting on is making flexible working a default option unless there are good reasons not to,” they said. That would mirror the approach to other forms of flexible working, such as part-time hours.

However, they emphasised there would be no legal right to work from home, adding that the Prime Minister still believed there were benefits to being in the office, including collaboration with colleagues.

Business lobby groups have said many of their members are considering keeping flexible and hybrid approaches adopted during the pandemic. Sixty-three per cent of members of the Institute of Directors said they intended to shift to working from home for office-based workers for between one and four days a week.

However, the Confederation of British Industry, another lobby group, said it opposed giving workers an automatic right to work from home. “The default must remain that businesses control where work is done. While they will need to talk with workers about this, accommodate flexibility where they can and explain these decisions, it can’t be unduly onerous to do so,” said Matthew Percival, the CBI’s Director of People and Skills. “That’s why a ‘right to request’ approach is the right one.”

The pandemic [that is, lockdown] has ushered in drastically different working arrangements for many office workers, but the plan to legislate to support working from home had already been mooted in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto…

Ministers have been advised that removal of all restrictions on workplaces could be risky, according to a document first reported by Politico. Instead, the Government is thought to be considering advice for a hybrid approach, blending continued home working with some time in the office when necessary.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Downing Street has denied the story, saying there are “no plans” to make working from home the default after the pandemic or to legislate for a legal right to work from home. But many things the Government has said it has “no plans” for have subsequently turned out to be very much in the pipeline, so we shall see.

More Companies Tell Their Staff to Work From Home Post-Lockdown

An increasing number of companies are telling their staff to work from home at least some of the time, confirming previous reports that, for many, “hybrid working” could become “the norm” post lockdown. HSBC moved 1,200 staff in Britain to permanent working from home contracts last month – many of them willingly – in an effort to cut costs, despite a study finding that working from home is less productive (not to mention the impact on staff socialisation). The latest companies to take this approach are Google and KPMG. The Guardian has the story.

Accounting and consultancy group KPMG has told its 16,000 U.K. staff that they will have to work only an average of two days in the office each week from next month, as the firm revealed its plans for a post-pandemic hybrid working model.

Under the new initiative, which the company has called the “four-day fortnight”, staff will spend the remaining days working either from home or at client sites.

In addition, over the summer, staff will also be given an extra 2.5 hours off each week “to give people time away from work and to re-energise”. 

All staff will be given an extra day off on June 21st, the date the Government plans to end all social distancing restrictions – which many see as marking the end of the pandemic.

The new KPMG working arrangements were unveiled as Google said it expected 20% of its staff to work from home permanently in the future. The search engine group said it anticipated 60% of workers being office-based, 20% working in new office locations and 20% staying at home.

Those proposals are in stark contrast to the approach taken by investment bank Goldman Sachs. On Tuesday, Goldman moved in the opposite direction, telling its U.S. and U.K. bankers to prepare to return to offices next month.

Jon Holt, Chief Executive at KPMG UK, said: “We trust our people. Our new way of working will empower them and enable them to design their own working week. The pandemic has proven it’s not about where you work, but how you work.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Almost all of the U.K.’s 50 biggest employers say that they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time, according to BBC News.

The Growing Plague of Mandatory Testing in UK Workplaces

A Lockdown Sceptics reader has written to tell us about mandatory testing that’s happening at his workplace.

Regarding the story on Durham University today and lateral flow tests, you’ll probably be aware that there’s a growing problem of mandatory testing in workplaces.

I work in an office in London and we were told this week that twice-weekly tests are mandatory to come into the office. We currently have about 10 people coming in out of a possible 200+.

To make it worse, we were originally told these tests were advisory, but now apparently they are mandatory – something to do with the firm’s “duty of care to those with hidden underlying health conditions”. The people being tested are the same people who’ve been vaccinated of course, which shows the senselessness of the whole thing. And arguably makes the testing permanent, given that having been vaccinated doesn’t absolve you of the need to get tested twice a week.

People who hadn’t taken the test this week were sent home halfway through the day, despite having reasonable objections, including having recently had the virus (and so having the antibodies that meant they could neither catch it nor pass it on), and others not being prepared to risk having to self-isolate, given individual circumstances that make that impossible. Of course, companies can do as they please – but this is all so self-defeating and driven by all the wrong instincts.

Those of us grateful to still have a job and income have to pick and choose our battles. But why is there not more of an outcry over mandatory testing? Will mandatory vaccinations be next? You could make a case for all this (I personally wouldn’t) in a care home, but not in a normal office. Many people will say it’s the price we have to pay for getting back to normal, but it’s a high price.

My own circumstances are even worse but probably not unique. I refuse to comply with any of this because my partner had a miscarriage a few months ago, caused, we believe, by having to carry something heavy in her workplace which colleagues wouldn’t help with “due to the social distancing rules”. This is the true hidden horrific cost of lockdown and the other measures. She was then made to suffer alone in hospital on multiple occasions (family not allowed in), and even the paramedics were reluctant to come to the house – for a critical emergency – without ascertaining her Covid status. The cruelty of lockdown and the restrictions is my biggest bugbear, quite aside from its efficacy.

If other readers have stories about mandatory testing in their workplace, do email them to us here (saying whether you’re happy for us to publish your name).