Boris Johnson has announced the return to “Plan A” measures from Thursday 27 January.
In a statement to the Commons on Wednesday 19 January, Mr Johnson said employees would no longer be required to work from home, and face masks will not be required in shops and on public transport.
The government implemented “Plan B” measures in December 2021 in a bid to slow the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Under the restrictions, face masks were once again made compulsory in most public places like shops, theatres and cinemas, and people were asked to return to working from home where possible.
While some companies have remained working from home throughout the pandemic, the easing of all Covid-19 restrictions last July saw thousands of workers return to the office, at least part-time, introducing a new hybrid office model.
This week, health secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons that there is a “likelihood” that the wave of Omicron infections in England has passed its peak.
“The action that this government has taken in response to Omicron and the collective efforts of the British people have seen us become the most boosted country in Europe, the most tested country in Europe, and the most antivirals per head in Europe,” he told MPs.
He continued: “Due to these pharmaceutical defences and the likelihood that we have already reached the peak of the case numbers of hospitalisations, I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to substantially reduce restrictions next week.”
On Tuesday 18 January, the UK recorded 94,432 new cases of the virus and 438 deaths of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 in the past 28 days. In the last week, 673,987 people have tested positive for the virus, a week-on-week decrease of -38.9 per cent.
While rates of Covid-19 infections are decreasing, the figures are still significantly higher than those seen earlier in the pandemic. For comparison, the UK recorded 37,535 cases of the virus on 18 January 2021.
Some experts have expressed support for an easing of Plan B, arguing that a return to the office is “just part of living with the virus as it becomes more endemic and seasonal”. Others are wary, telling the Independent that they would like to see rates of infection “reduced to very low levels”, before a change is introduced.
Here’s what they had to say about whether it is safe to return to the office.
The risks are tolerable for some, higher for others
As per the latest figures, 90.7 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. More than 83 per cent have had two doses, while 63.6 per cent have also taken up a booster jab.
Additionally, the UK has so far recorded a total of 15,399,300 cases of positive Covid infections.
Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Reading says a return to the office for most of the population poses little risk, as “the pattern with Omicron that we are seeing in the UK population is a move towards a less severe, more transmissible variant that is not requiring hospitalisation for most people”.
“Early on in the pandemic, many virologists already thought that SARS-COV-2 would eventually become endemic and seasonal – like the other seasonal respiratory coronaviruses,” Tang explains.
“Overall, the more globally spreading [variants, such as] Alpha (from the UK), Delta (from India) and Omicron (from South Africa) are becoming more transmissible and less severe.”
The consensus amongst experts is that those who are triple vaccinated are least at risk. While you can still catch the virus, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at The Norwich School of Medicine says it is “very unlikely to make you very sick or kill you, so I guess the risk is tolerable”.
He continues: “But if you are in a vulnerable group either because of your age or because of your medical history and especially if you haven’t been vaccinated then you are more at risk and from your perspective the risk may not be tolerable.”
Managing the risks
As the work-from-home order is lifted, some workers may find they have no choice but to return to the office, regardless of how comfortable they feel.
Tang says that those who are more vulnerable to the virus, or have chronic medical conditions, can choose to protect themselves by wearing mask in crowded indoor areas and on public transport.
He adds: “Whatever the decision on which restrictions to lift or retain, this is again just part of living with the virus as it becomes more endemic and seasonal.”
Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health sciences and fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, says the type of mask being used is also important.
“We now know that high-grade FFP2 masks are needed to stop transmission of the highly contagious Omicron variant. If you’re in an open plan office or share air with other humans (e.g. under ventilated corridors), you need to keep your FFP2 mask on continuously,” she says.
Employers should also consider amping up ventilation in offices.
“Air quality is key,” Greenhalgh says. “The CO2 levels in an indoor space are a good proxy for how much exhaled air from others you are likely to be inhaling.
“Below 700 parts per million is reassuring; above 1500 is very concerning. CO2 levels won’t help you however if your employer uses filtration to clean the air, since filters don’t remove CO2 levels.”
It’s not just the office
For many people working in big cities, working in the office involves commuting on public transport.
As per Mr Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday, wearing a mask is no longer required on buses and trains. However he said the government will “suggest” the use of face coverings in cramped and crowded spaces.
Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, says those who are vulnerable to Covid-19 should consider that “a mass retreat from working at home will mean that the numbers of infections will not decrease as fast as it otherwise would”.
Clarke explains: “It would mean a substantial increase in interpersonal interactions not only in the workplace, but also in people’s commute and that will provide the virus with an opportunity to infect people who, for whatever reason, are not protected.”
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