The government’s execution of the lockdown has been successful in that infection rates and the number of deaths are falling, whilst hospitals’ available capacity for new cases is increasing.
“Stay Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives” was a clear and simple message, and the UK population (predominately) complied.
But it now seems that the messaging may have been too successful, as whilst most of us seem to be comfortable with going out for fresh air, exercise and shopping (and recognise the importance of continued social distancing in the process), a significant proportion of the population now have considerable concerns about returning to working in an office as COVID-19 lockdown measures ease over time.
Each of us is embedded within our “social bubble”, that bubble being the people we live with. We all understand the dangers of COVID-19 and how these escalate for those with existing conditions, e.g. if you are overweight or the increased risk for those over 50. In terms of staying safe, each of us is now having to make a personal decision on the risks we are prepared to take, but must also bear in mind the age and health of those within our social bubble.
Putting all that aside, the new challenge is that a large number of people simply do not want to catch COVID-19, however small the risk of dying. Whilst going outside is not seen as a significant risk, having to work in an office and in particular, commute on public transport (especially the tube) is seen as a step too far.
What is particularly interesting is that those who are currently unwilling to return to work, often make the statement with the caveat “for the next month or three”. So, what exactly do they expect to change in that timescale?
COVID-19 is not going away, and until we either have an effective vaccine or more than 60% of the world population has been infected and their antibodies prevent re-infection (the jury is out on that one), the risk of infection will remain long into the future.
Social separation post the COVID-19 lockdown will continue to be important to ensure that our hospitals have the capacity to maximise everyone’s chances of survival, so now it boils down to every individual (and their personal social bubble) to manage risk.
The implications of these personal choices are going to have a major impact on almost every business. Do employers have the right to enforce a return to work when the implications for each individual and members of their social bubble are potentially terminal?
The primary problem is the overuse of the word “safe” as it implies zero risk. With COVID-19, no one is 100% “safe” and more importantly, that will remain true for the foreseeable future.
There are a growing number of people (albeit statistically tiny) who have been infected for a second time. We do not yet understand how long an individual’s post-infection immunity lasts or, for that matter, how well a potential future vaccine may work or how long it will last.
For businesses, the challenge is how can they invest and evolve their internal processes to fully support working from home. Of course, some will decide that if you do not turn up to work, irrespective of your personal circumstances, they will let you go and hire someone that will.
For each of us individually, the question is at what point will we start to accept the risk of infection and take our chances, in preference to becoming hermits.
One thing, however, is clear: every business that builds the option and ability to effectively work from home into their core infrastructure and recruitment profile will benefit the most in the short, medium and long term. (This is something we've successfully done for accounts payable functions)
Because, at the end of the day, the decision to risk your life or those in your social bubble, should always be a personal choice.
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