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expert reaction to comments by Matt Hancock on BBC Breakfast that the UK is not considering mask use in offices as COVID transmission in the workplace is low

Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said this morning in an interview on BBC Breakfast that the UK is not considering mask use in offices as COVID transmission in the workplace is low.


Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine, The Norwich School of Medicine, University of East Anglia, said:

“Following Matt Hancock’s statement, I would urge some caution. I assume that he is basing this on internal data being generated by the test track and trace agency. Whilst this data has not yet been made publicly available, I suspect that he would not say such a thing without some good evidence to back it up.

“However, given the changing situation in the UK we have to be careful not to assume that what was the case a month ago will necessarily be the case next month. If most office workers were still working at home until recently or are even still working at home, then of course office based transmission isn’t going to feature in the statistics. For any situation to play an important part in transmission, the people have actually got to be in that situation. It is a bit like saying that because there were no cases associated with churches in the UK from April to July, then churches are safe and we should encourage everyone to go to church. The fact that churches were closed for worship during that time may have had more than a little to do with the fact that there were no cases there and so this gives no real evidence for whether or not churches are safe. I know some offices have continued to operate but generally with rather fewer workers who were able self-distance.

“We do know that there have been office related outbreaks elsewhere in the world and in the UK1. So office based transmission has been known to occur.

“The big concern with offices is not the general low-level person-to-person spread that probably is an issue in the recent past and works effectively in families, but whether super-spreaders can rapidly accelerate transmission in a large office environment. We have seen this already in work environments in the UK2.

“Face coverings may have a role in reducing risk of transmission, but they are not an absolute guarantee. Other aspects of social distancing also need to be maintained.

“Clearly the UK needs to get back to work, but simply relying on data to date when many people have been working at home is not an adequate measure of risk. Employers have to undertake a proper risk assessment of their workplaces and then act on this to reduce risk to their staff and consider how to protect any particularly vulnerable employees. Otherwise, we are certainly likely to see work environments feature more highly in the future.”

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Prof James Naismith FRS FMedSci, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, and Professor of Structural Biology, University of Oxford, said:

“The Minister is quite right, the data show that currently infection overwhelmingly spreads at home. However, this reflects our current condition, with social distancing, many people working at home, masking, summer weather and restrictions on occupancy of social spaces. A mass return to work out of home will change these conditions and consequently how the virus spreads.

“Until a vaccine or universal medicine arrives, our most effective plan is to isolate infectious people – this needs rapid mass testing. Since no system is 100 %, we all have a part to play – washing our hands, wearing masks and socially distancing will greatly reduce community spread. I have been impressed by the creative efforts many businesses have made to reduce community spread.

“I would emphasise that the virus will humble us all, as we do not know enough to be sure of everything we do before we do it. Some steps on the journey to a more normal life will be mistakes; others will work better than feared; there will be luck and judgement here. Rather than crow about successes or finger point at failures, it is better to learn and change course. Scientists do experiments because they don’t know the answer and use the data to change minds. It’s a useful way to think about what lies ahead.”


Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor of Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said:

“Only a month ago, Matt Hancock said that face masks in the workplace were ‘something we’ve looked at and rejected’. Now his view seems to have softened somewhat to being something that ‘we are not currently considering’, leaving open the prospect of a change to policy in the future.

“Other than arguments over the effectiveness of masks in a workplace, 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.”


Prof Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics, University of Bristol, said:

“Everyone in my NHS Trust is wearing masks at work, including when in office areas, and I’m strongly encouraging my team members to do likewise in my lab. Most people seem happy enough to do so once they understand the thinking behind it – namely, that everyone is doing it to protect everyone else.

“The government may have evidence and other reasons for not wishing to compel people to do this, but I think people should at least be encouraged to don a mask whenever they are sharing space with others.”


Prof Keith Neal, Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, University of Nottingham, said:

Office working has an inherent basis of social distancing built in. Most workplace outbreaks have been in factories producing food where temperatures are usually kept low.

“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.

“There are other risks travelling to work. Although masks are required on public transport, I have seen reports it is not being rigorously enforced. For those many more areas of the country where public transport is not an option, this will require car use. Car sharing has been suggested as a risk factor, but this would not generate many cases and these reports have also involved a shared place of work.

“Unnecessary car journeys (even if only to the station) lead to increased CO2 emissions and localised air pollution.

“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.”




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