Bring back ‘work from home’ guidance to tackle omicron, top advisers tell government

‘The more people can work from home now the better’

Adam Forrest
Friday 03 December 2021 22:30
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Boris Johnson’s government should consider bringing back “work from home” guidance in bid to tackle the spread of the Covid omicron variant, top scientific advisers have recommended.

The full official notes from the latest Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting – published on Friday – show that the experts believe remote working is a “highly relevant” way to reduce transmission of the new variant.

The Sage committee also warned ministers that they may not be able wait for data on omicron before deciding whether to bring in more restrictions.

“Even if measures are introduced immediately, there may not be time to fully ascertain whether they are sufficient before decisions are needed on further action,” the document states.

It comes as Prof Adam Finn, a member of the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), recommended that people return to working from home.

“The more people can work from home now the better, until we are more definite about what’s going to happen,” Prof Finn told The Guardian.

The University of Bristol expert added: “We need to buy time. If in three weeks it’s died out, then fine, we can all relax, but right now is the time when you could prevent there being a big wave.”

The warning came before a further 75 cases of the omicron variant were confirmed in England, doubling the UK’s total.

The UK Health Security Agency said on Friday night that cases had now been detected in the East Midlands, East of England, London, North East, North West, South East, South West and West Midlands.

A total of 104 cases have now been identifed in England, with a further 45 in Scotland and one in Wales.

Earlier this week Prof Susan Michie, a member of the Sage committee, said working from home should be reintroduced to combat omicron transmission.

“If you wait until we’ve got certainty you’ve lost it,” she told i. “You need to act quickly, you need to act hard and you need to act before you actually need to act.

Minutes from the latest Sage leaked earlier this week warned that the variant could see a “very large wave” of Covid infections in the UK and may need “stringent” rules to protect the NHS.

The full document published on Friday afternoon warned that both the introduction of vaccine passports and work-from-home guidance remain potential ways to response to omicron in the days ahead.

“Past Sage advice on measures to reduce transmission remains highly relevant, including but not limited to advice around ventilation, face coverings, hand hygiene, reducing contacts (e.g. by working from home), vaccination certification, and the importance of effective testing, contact tracing and isolation,” the document states.

The Liberal Democrats urged the government to bring in guidance recommending the return of remote working – saying ministers would be “crazy” to ignore the advice of scientists.

The party’s health spokesperson Daisy Cooper MP said: “How many times does Sage need to recommend ‘working from home’ before the government actually listens?”

The MP added: “Working from home is a cheap and simple way to reduce contacts and Covid transmission, and the government is crazy to ignore it.”

The government is set to review its most recent restrictions – the re-introduction of mandatory mask-wearing in shops and public – in three weeks’ time.

But ministers have made clear they do not wish to see the return of working from home guidance – one of its so-called ‘plan B’ measures.

Health secretary Sajid Javid has suggested the government may bring forward its review and lift existing curbs earlier than planned. “We may not even need to wait three weeks,” he said earlier this week.

It comes as NHS England said the ramped-up rollout of Covid booster jabs will be in place “no later than” 13 December, after the government decided the time between a second dose and booster should be cut from six months to three months.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that the majority of all known omicron Covid cases in England have been detected in people that have had at least two vaccines.

Of the first 22 omicron cases analysed, 12 of them were linked to people who found out they were infected more than 14 days after receiving their last jab, according to the UK Health Security Agency.

In a worrying development, South African scientists reported that omicron appears more likely than earlier variants to cause reinfections among people who have already had Covid.

In more encouraging news, a UK report suggests receiving a third Covid jab leads to good levels of protection from the virus. The CovBoost study published in The Lancet found that the body’s T cell immune response from boosters provides strong protection from serious illness and death.

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