Will Omicron Mean More Working From Home?

Top scientists are calling for the government to reintroduce WFH where possible.
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As prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that the new Covid variant is more transmissible than the last dominant strain, Delta, questions about bringing back social distancing rules have returned.

Should the UK be re-introducing working from home (WFH) advice again, as stated in the government’s plan B?

What does SAGE suggest?

Last week’s meeting between the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) concluded that remote working is a “highly relevant” method to reduce the transmission rates of the new variant.

The committee wants ministers to bring more restrictions in rather than waiting for further data as it may be too late to slow the rate of infection by then.

The advisory group concluded: “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.

“Past safe 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 important of effective testing, contact tracing and isolation.”

Will Downing Street follow this advice?

Government insiders told POLITICO’s Playbook that WFH might be brought back if Omicron puts the NHS under strain in the coming weeks.

Downing Street has previously admitted that if the NHS comes under too much pressure this winter, WFH advice will be brought back for “a limited period”.

Health secretary Sajid Javid rejected advice to bring back WFH last month shortly after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the world that Omicron was a “variant of concern”.

He told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “No, I don’t think that’s necessary. Because this is about taking proportionate action against the risks that we face.”

Yet, the government has already backed down and tightened up its new travel rules by reintroducing pre-departure tests for travellers in recent days.

Downing Street is set to review the current rules by the end of next week. It has already made mask-wearing mandatory in shops and on public transport.

Going into the workplace is likely to make transmission rates higher
SDI Productions via Getty Images
Going into the workplace is likely to make transmission rates higher

What is the advice in each UK nation?

In England, the WFH recommendation ended when social distancing rules were lifted on July 19.

No.10′s spokesman said that Omicron had not changed Downing Street’s position on this, as it was up to employers to consider the “right balance” for their own companies.

The advice is already in place in Scotland, where first minister Nicola Sturgeon strongly encouraged everyone to WFH if possible when explaining her response to the Omicron variant.

Scotland’s devolved government also called for a mixture of home and office working to be developed as a long-term strategy.

Northern Ireland’s ministers have encouraged working from home to reduce infection, but did not order them to stay away from the workplace.

In Wales, the guidance explains staff should not feel “required or placed under pressure to return” unless there is a clear need for it.

How to ask your employer to WFH

Employees can request to join flexible working by law, but there’s no guarantee your boss will agree. They can refuse if they have a “good business reason”.

But the government recently closed a consultation which would make flexible working the default for all employees from their first day, instead of from the six-month mark and is currently analysing the results.