Schools’ experience offers best guide to what may happen when offices reopen

Mood of uncertainty and nervousness as slow return to the workplace starts on Monday

Dublin docklands area, home to many corporate head offices. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Dublin docklands area, home to many corporate head offices. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

The slow return of many staff to the workplace from Monday is likely to take place against a background of uncertainty and nervousness.

Tens of thousands of employees have been working from home for more than 18 months now, and for many this has become their preferred experience of employment.

Pandemic restrictions has meant that many have become unused to spending long periods of time with large numbers of people in indoor settings. Some will inevitably worry about having to do so.

The Government has directed that attendance at work may restart from Monday “on a phased and staggered attendance basis”. Most employers are likely to hasten slowly anyway, given the continuing risk from Covid-19 and the clear preference of many staff for home working.

Though cases have been falling gradually for a month, incidence of the disease in Ireland remains one of the highest in Europe. The return to offices and other workplaces will contribute to some rise in infections, but it is not clear how big or how sustained this will be.

On the plus side, the overwhelming majority of people of working age are fully vaccinated. They can still be infected but are much less likely to fall seriously ill. They can transmit the virus onwards, but are probably less likely to do so than if they were unvaccinated.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
448 88

And while employees are returning to the workplace, they are still required to do all the other things we have been doing to limit infections – social distancing, mask-wearing, handwashing, and so on. If properly observed, these measures can do much to control the spread of infection. But this may prove a big “if” – for example, how many of those going back to work are used to wearing masks all day?

The best guide to what might happen comes from schools. Each time classrooms reopened during the pandemic, there was a rise in cases among children, but it was limited and transient. Because of increased watchfulness, there tends to be a big increase in demand for testing, but this does not translate proportionately into confirmed cases.

Even with the highly transmissible Delta variant, health officials are predicting that case numbers will quickly settle down again following the most recent return to school two weeks ago. At present, demand for testing for children has trebled, but the number of cases has increased by only 50 per cent. It seems many of these cases were low-level infections that weren’t being picked up during the summer.

Case numbers are actually falling among second-level students, despite their return to school, due to widespread vaccination of this age-group.

Officials have repeatedly said much of the rise in cases among young people during the school year relates not to what goes on in the classroom, but what happens outside it. After-school activities, as well as transport to and from school, have been blamed for many outbreaks.

The same issue could arise with the return to work, as people travel to the office on crowded public transport or in shared vehicles, for instance.

According to the Government’s Work Safely Protocol, the decision to get vaccinated against Covid-19 is voluntary. The Data Protection Commissioner had found there is no clear legal basis for employers to collect information about the vaccination status of staff, outside areas such as frontline health. As a result, neither employers nor their employees will know exactly who is vaccinated in the workforce. This is one reason why other infection control measures have to remain in place for now.

“Vaccination should be considered as a useful supplement to existing public health infection prevention and control measures, namely wearing masks/face coverings, ventilation, physical distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, proper use of PPE but it should not replace them,” the protocol states.

Ventilation is another important issue. According to the protocol: “Reoccupying workplaces should not, in most cases, require new ventilation systems but improvements to ventilation will help increase the quantity of clean air and reduce the risk of exposure to airborne concentrations of the virus.”

Simply opening the windows might suffice in some locations but for many workers in modern office buildings this isn’t possible. Employers have been told to switch off air recirculation systems unless high-efficiency filters are being used.

Staggered shifts and break times, and a continued reliance on online meetings are among many measures likely to be used to minimise the threat posed by the virus. While people will start returning to the workplace, it won’t feel the same as before for a very long time.

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