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delta surge Expert warns next month too soon for return to offices without proper plan

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Orla Hegarty

Orla Hegarty

Assistant Professor Orla Hegarty of UCD School of Architecture

Assistant Professor Orla Hegarty of UCD School of Architecture

Anthony Staines

Anthony Staines

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Orla Hegarty

A public health expert has warned that a return to the office by thousands of workers from early next month is too soon as Delta cases surge.

Professor Anthony Staines of DCU said he did not think “with the best will in the world” that all “plans and mitigations” can be in place if the government announces a September reopening later this month.

It comes as Google and Amazon postponed their reopening dates by months and as groceries firm Musgraves said its staff would not return to their offices before February.

Google has adjusted its global work from home policy, which affects Irish staff, until October 18, while Amazon pushed back its return date for corporate employees in the US until January.

Government sources said it is still likely to press ahead with a return next month, despite the highly-contagious variant, as a high proportion of people are now vaccinated.

“I think going back to the office at the beginning of September is too soon,” said Prof Staines.

“It’s a fair amount of work for employers if the guidelines are coming out at the end of August. A lot of people are working from home and the case numbers are increasing all the time.

“We have some of the longest commute times in the world. I think employers will decide what they want to do themselves.”

Although Prof Staines expects a surge in cases next month, he said it will be driven most by infections on public transport and among children.

Proper air filtration is vital, and if staff are brought back to work in close quarters the level of disruption will be “astronomical”.

“They should certainly stagger it,” he said. “In the city centre in Dublin, there are a lot of civil servants and almost all of them could work from home without any difficulty.

“Nobody knows what will happen. What is likely to happen is that there will be a large outbreak among primary school children because none of them are vaccinated.

“I’m not sure we have any really coherent plan other than muddling through and vaccination.

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“Nphet has given up, as far as I can see. The language, particularly of Philip Nolan, is about the misbehaviour of individuals if anything goes wrong.

“It’s just not the right way to think about this. It’s a failure at state level to have policies and a failure to address a suite of problems.”

Professor Jack Lambert of the UCD School of Medicine said the Government had given very little direction on the kind of set-up that will make workplaces safe.

He said delaying the return to office working is not a solution, but there needs to be far more guidance on safe behaviour, including masks.

“The thing is, show me that protocol,” he said. “Show me and tell me how many inspections have been done, and what is the protocol for inspections.

“The thing in Ireland is you ask for details of what they’ve done and you find out very little.”

Assistant professor at the UCD School of Architecture Orla Hegarty said the situation is “a bit of a perfect storm”.

“The political message is that everything is on course for reopening and the vaccination programme is going great, but it doesn’t match with the data,” she said.

“We are not doing anything to make buildings safer. We know what dangerous conditions are, but we are not measuring them.”

Prof Hegarty said the Health and Safety Authority was telling employers to ventilate buildings, but many did not know what this meant in practice.

Neil McDonnell, the chief executive of ISME, the association for small and medium enterprises, urged the Government to let employers know when the return to the office will begin.

“We believe the Government should be communicating a return to work message, as it is difficult for businesses to plan without it,” he said.

The Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 has said a revised roadmap, which is expected later this month, will “include the sustainable reopening of offices and other indoor activities”.

It said the Government objective is that once a sector reopens, there should be no closing it again.

Musgraves said its office-based workers would not return until February at the earliest, saying this “allows us to best safeguard the wellbeing of our customers and colleagues”.

Insurer Aviva has set a provisional date for a return to the office in mid-September, subject to government advice.

Bank of Ireland has not set a firm date and will review plans when the advice is updated.

A plan by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform allows for staff to return between next month and next March.

A Department of Enterprise spokesperson said the current advice is to continue to work from home.

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