Matt Hancock insists no reason not to go back to work as 'little evidence' coronavirus is passed on in offices

·3-min read
Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivering his speech on the future of the NHS at the Royal College of Physicians in central London: PA
Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivering his speech on the future of the NHS at the Royal College of Physicians in central London: PA

People have no reason not to go back to workplaces as there is scant evidence that this is where coronavirus is passed on, Matt Hancock has insisted.

The Health Secretary said people mostly catch Covid-19 from meeting other households at home, citing NHS contact tracing data.

But some commentators criticised his comments as "cavalier" and argued that they missed the point of how the virus is spread.

Mr Hancock told the BBC: “The reason is the evidence from NHS Test and Trace for where people catch the disease is that very largely they catch it from one household meeting another household, usually in one of their homes.

There is little evidence that people are infected in workplaces, Matt Hancock has said (PA)
There is little evidence that people are infected in workplaces, Matt Hancock has said (PA)

“So it is that household transmission that is the core root of passing on this virus in this country. The amount of people who have caught it in workplaces is relatively low, from the evidence we’ve got.”

He also ruled out ordering people who work in offices and other indoor settings to wear masks. This is a policy that was adopted by France on Tuesday.

Asked if he would consider a blanket rule, he replied: “We constantly look at the scientific advice and the answer here is we’re not currently considering doing that."

But scientists hit out at Mr Hancock's comments, explaining that people could easily spread the virus from households to workplaces.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the university of Reading, said: "It misses the point to state that workplace transmission is less significant than those that take place in the home. While that may well be true, any transmission spreads the virus and pushes up the R number.

"The virus needs to be taken into homes by someone and they will have had to pick it up from somewhere else. Therefore, even a single workplace transmission could lead to multiple onward infections in a family, household or other setting.

“In the absence of appropriate data, it seems rather cavalier to dismiss workplaces as a source of potential infection, but label shops as higher risk and requiring masks, even though interactions with people are far more fleeting and less intimate.”

And Professor Keith Neal, Emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the university of Nottingham said that not much was yet understood about where transmission takes place.

He said: "There has been little published work from the UK identifying where people have caught infections. We do know that transmission occurs in hospitals, in care homes, households and families mixing in households along with overcrowded pubs as in Aberdeen.

"The risk in offices must exist but so far not been measured and can reasonably thought to be low...

“Working from home minimises your and your family’s risk from COVID-19 and flu. Working from home will keep down the overall number of transmissions in the whole country.

“If you can work from home without any detriment then it is reasonable to carry on doing this, but if you have to go to the office the risk is minimal and can be managed to be even lower.”

Mr Hancock's comments come after Tony Blair warned that people would not go back to normal activities without the safety net of mass coronavirus testing.

The former Labour prime minister told Sky News: “So you can say to people, ‘go back into work’, but if they don’t feel safe, they’re going to be reluctant.

“And if you want to reopen schools, universities, workplaces, if you want international travel to function again, the only way I think you can do that is by doing testing at scale and that’s why we’ve got to move to this.”

The Government dropped advice to work from home if possible from the start of August, amid concerns that city-centre businesses were suffering from a dearth of commuter trade.

France made masks compulsory on Tuesday for all shared, enclosed workplaces, in a bid to slow the spread of the virus as cases spike again. The new rule will come into force on September 1.

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