People returning to offices en masse could lead to a “rapid” increase of transmission of the virus which causes Covid-19, an expert has warned.
Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that there could be outbreaks as networks reform.
Under the Government’s so-called “Plan B” of how to manage coronavirus cases over the winter, advice to work from home could return if the NHS comes under unstainable pressure.
One of the documents which informed the Government’s decision making, a document from the advisory group SPI-M-O, said the early use of measures to control spread, which could include continued homeworking, cut the need for tougher measures later on.
clearly, if we all go back tomorrow to full contact then we will end up with transmission increasing and potentially quite high, quite rapidly
The document added: “There is a clear consensus that continued high levels of homeworking has played a very important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months.
“It is highly likely that a significant decrease in homeworking in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions.”
Prof Medley, who is part of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, told a briefing for journalists that over August, where many people were still working from home, the reproduction number in England had remained “relatively flat”.
He added: “It is uncertain what’s going to happen, we are still waiting for the full effect of schools reopening and potentially getting people going back to work to play through into the data, but I think we are unlikely to see the very high levels that we’ve seen in the past.”
Prof Medley said: “What we have been doing in August has been enough to keep that reproduction number at one and that has still involved a lot of people not going back to the office and that would seem to be a baseline measure that has some control on transmission.
“All those people who have been working from home for the past 18 months or so, have not been making their normal contacts and it’s not just work – it’s the travel to and from work, the socialising after work, etc – which people are not doing and those networks, if recreated all at once, then potentially could be a way in which the transmission could take off quite rapidly.
“What’s driving some of the uncertainty is we don’t know how people are going to actually behave. And I’m sure we all have kind of anecdotal evidence of people who we know are going to continue working from home and other people who are itching to get back to the office and go for a drink in a pub afterwards.
“What we can’t know is what numbers of people will do that. And so that just adds to the uncertainty.
“But clearly, if we all go back tomorrow to full contact then we will end up with transmission increasing and potentially quite high, quite rapidly.”
He said as networks are reforming – such as workplaces going back and people seeing each other for the first time in 18 months – could potentially lead to outbreaks in those networks.