People are still having half the daily face-to-face contacts they had pre-pandemic and it’s helping to suppress the virus, data suggests.
Despite Covid restrictions having been all but dropped in Britain, people’s movement and socialising still lags behind many comparable countries and remains far below normal.
Data from the government-commissioned CoMix survey, which has tracked daily face-to-face contacts since the start of the pandemic, shows they have barely risen since previous lockdowns.
“Reported mean contacts remain lower than the levels reported in August last year and far lower than pre-pandemic levels”, says the week 72 survey report which reflects data up to August 10.
“Mean reported contacts for adults have increased steadily over the past few weeks, though the overall levels of contact remain less than half of pre-pandemic levels”.
Typically, we average about 10-11 contacts per person per day in Britain, but currently they stand at just three to four for both adults and children.
Contact rates have actually fallen slightly since the so-called ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19 for the population as a whole, with the school holidays markedly reducing daily contacts.
According to John Edmunds, a Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who helps run the CoMix survey, it is Britain’s failure to return to the office that accounts for the bulk of the gap.
“I think working from home is the single biggest factor, not just because it cuts out work contacts, but also there are social and travel-related contacts that are associated with working in the office”, he told the Telegraph last week. “We are still miles away from normal”.
The issue of office work – and if and when it will return to normal – is likely to be crucial in determining the future course of the pandemic in the UK over the next few months.
Covid cases, hospital admissions and deaths have started to creep up again over recent days but the rate of growth is slow for the moment, with the latest official government figures putting the reproduction rate of the virus (R) at between 0.9 and 1.2.
“The return to work may be gradual and ultimately incomplete”
The simple logic of mathematics suggests that a sudden return to office work could lead to a big jump in R given that, so far, as few as one in five office workers are thought to have returned to their desks.
Such a sea change could place the NHS under considerable pressure as hospital admissions are already higher than they were this time last year.
“A sudden return to work would bounce things up but the real question is: how likely is that?”, says the respected amateur Covid modeller James Ward.
“Anecdotally, the big firms I know of are taking things slowly. The return to work – if it does happen – may be gradual and ultimately incomplete”.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) notes that government guidance on office work remains “more cautious than some of the ‘freedom day’ media headlines would suggest”.
Specifically, it recommends that employers allow office workers to continue to work from home for the summer where they are able to.
“It is only in the longer term that the government expects that businesses will need to take fewer precautions to manage the risk of COVID-19”, says the CIPD. “The guidance is under government review and will be removed only once it’s safe to do so”.
The extent to which Britons remain cautious was reflected in other data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week.
A high proportion of adults still feel that measures to slow the spread of coronavirus are either “very important or important”, with 86 per cent supporting mask use and 84 per cent supporting continued social distancing.
“Over a quarter of adults (28%) reported they felt it will take more than a year for life to return to normal”, added the ONS.