The government should “pause” its “headlong rush” to persuade people to go back to work in their offices, professor Neil Ferguson has warned.
Ferguson was the the Imperial College epidemiologist who devised the model of infection that persuaded the government to introduce a national lockdown in March.
Boris Johnson on Wednesday announced that social gatherings of more than six people will be outlawed in England from Monday, in an attempt to reverse a recent surge in cases.
But the new rules do not apply to workplaces. And Dominic Raab, the first secretary of state, claimed on Sunday that working from home was “damaging the economy”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4′s Today programme on Thursday morning, Ferguson said: “The case number increases we’ve seen in the last two weeks, do not yet account for the reopening of schools.
“So undoubtedly that may increase transmission still further and there may be a need therefore to reduce contacts in other settings.
He added: “Certainly I think we should hesitate and maybe pause at the headlong rush to get everybody back into offices.
“But some people have to work and I completely understand the concerns in many quarters that everybody working at home has an economic impact, particularly on city centres.”
In order to get people back to work, the government is banking on a a new test that does not need to be processed in a lab to be developed, so that users get their results in a matter of minutes rather than days.
Similar to a pregnancy test, the saliva test would eliminate the need for people to travel – sometimes long distances – to testing centres before returning home to wait for the result.
The project has been dubbed “Operation Moonshot” by the prime minister, a reference to its complexity and ambition.
But professor David Spiegelhalter said the plan had led statisticians such as himself “banging their heads on the wall”.
“If you only have 1% false positives among all the people who are not infectious, and you’re testing the whole country, that’s 600,000 people unnecessarily labelled as positives,” he said.
“You’ve got this whole downstream business that that person will be told to isolate, their contacts will be told to isolate, and so on.”
On Wednesday, a further 2,659 positive cases were confirmed across the UK, taking the total up to 355,219.
Positive results have increased from from 12.5 per 100,000 people to 19.7 per 100,000 in the UK in the last week – with a particular rise in infections among young people.
Infections are most prevalent among the 19- to 21-year-old age group, with 54 cases per 100,000 people.