Working from home ‘considerably more effective’ than masks on children

A pandemic advisor to the federal government says people should work from home if they can and warned against “a laissez-faire attitude among some employers” that people with COVID “will just struggle on regardless”.

Professor Jodie McVernon, one of Australia’s most influential epidemiologists, said workplaces had long been shown as catalysts for COVID-19 spread through the community and if it was possible for people to work from home during the current wave, it is a “sensible thing to do”.

Jodie McVernon says it doesn’t have to be forever, but for the time being, if you have the opportunity to work from home, you should.Credit:Simon Schluter

The Doherty Institute’s director of epidemiology said working from home arrangements would also benefit businesses because fewer people would be off sick. She said while she understood it was “triggering” for some people to return to earlier pandemic arrangements, it was only a temporary measure as Australia endured a winter COVID-19 wave.

“Industry is there to make a profit and if your workforce is all sick, it’s not going well,” McVernon said.

“I think we’ve also slipped into this dangerous thinking that ‘oh well, everybody’s got COVID, but now they’ll just all be on Zoom’. [There’s] this assumption that people will get COVID and somehow struggle through remotely, and it’s not what we are finding.”

Australian governments have stopped short of issuing any orders requiring people to work from home, but it’s being strongly encouraged.

Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas has requested “employers consider working from home arrangements that are most appropriate for their workplace and employees based on individual requirements”.

It followed more strongly worded advice from acting Victorian Chief Health Officer Ben Cowie, recommending “during the coming period of increased transmission and resulting health system pressure in July and August, people work from home where practical to do so”. In the same advice, he called for mask mandates to be reintroduced in several locations, including in schools, excluding children in grade two and under.

July was Victoria’s deadliest month since the pandemic began. The state recorded 737 deaths for the month as of Sunday, July 31, compared to 505 in June.

Epidemiologist Professor James Trauer said, rather than mandating masks in young school children, the first thing he would do if there was a need to reduce COVID-19 spread was to get people who can work from home to do so.

Epidemiologist Professor James Trauer.Credit:Scott McNaughton

“I think that’s going to be considerably more effective than asking eight-year-olds to put on face masks.”

The head of the epidemiological modelling unit at Monash University said he was unsure how helpful mandating working from home would be at this stage of the current Omicron wave, but it could be the first stage of a plan for the next challenging variant.

“But I think we only need to do that if we’re really stretching our health services … it should be a bit of an emergency measure when we reach the sort of the levels of stress that we are reaching at the moment.”

The number of Australians in hospital with COVID-19 is close to the highest it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic and for many months hospital staff have been reporting that they are being dangerously stretched by staff and bed shortages.

McVernon, who has been working more from home recently, said she believed it was fortunate that the last major Omicron wave, in January, occurred over the holiday period, because even though people were socialising, they were doing it with the same group of people, often over shorter time periods.

“What workplaces do is bring together people from lots of different households, from lots of different geographies [and] they often travel together in crowded transport.”

For those businesses where people are unable to work from home, McVernon suggested that they do what they did earlier in the pandemic, and alter shift arrangements so that crucial people were not working at the same time.

Early this month, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, of which all the nation’s chief health officers are members, called on employers to “consider the feasibility of some employees working from home”.

“We know that for many people in many businesses, you can work from home and continue to be productive,” said Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly last week.

Professor Alex Martiniuk, an epidemiologist with the University of Sydney, said beyond getting vaccinated, which was number one, it was difficult to rank the benefits and harms of different public health interventions.

“So the general message to the public is keep doing as many as you can feasibly do without it harming you too much, so [whether that be] reducing contacts, working from home [or] wearing a mask on the bus or at the grocery store.”

Victorian Employment Minister Jaala Pulford said on Friday that Victorian employers were getting the balance right when it came to working from home, saying “leaders in our work community feel acutely their responsibility to make sure that their staff are healthy and safe at work”.

With Rachel Eddie and Ashleigh McMillan

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