Matt Hancock faced criticism today after telling workers to get back to their offices because the risk of catching coronavirus there is minimal.
The health secretary said official data – which has not been made public – showed only a ‘relatively low’ number of people had contacted Covid-19 at their place of work.
But experts claimed the reason office transmission remained low was because most people worked from home for months and a huge chunk of the workforce was still doing so.
One called Mr Hancock’s comments ‘cavalier’, while another said his blasé attitude towards Covid in the workplace could ‘certainly’ see offices suffer outbreaks in the future.
Mr Hancock made the comments after he was asked whether the UK will follow the lead of France and require face masks to be worn in all workplaces.
The new rules in France are due to come into effect on September 1 and will require face coverings to be worn in all shared and enclosed workspaces, including open-plan and shared offices.
The Health Secretary said ‘we are not currently considering doing that’.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘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.
‘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.’
Keith Neal, an emeritus professor of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, told MailOnline: ‘Working for home minimises you and your family’s risk from Covid-19 and flu.
‘Working from 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.’
Just last month two clusters were linked back to a call centre in Port Glasgow in Scotland and a pharmacy in Greater Glasgow.
Several super-spreader events have occurred in factories and food processing plants elsewhere around the UK.
Yet the Health Secretary said today that data showed ‘very largely’ the disease is being passed on when one household meets with another ‘usually in one of their homes’.
He claimed household transmission is ‘the root of passing on this virus in this country’.
The Government ditched its lockdown work from home guidance at the start of August as ministers encouraged staff to return to offices.
The decision was made amid growing fears that continued working from home risked the death of town and city centres as businesses reliant on commuter footfall struggle to survive.
Mr Hancock today suggested there is no reason for workers not to be back in the office.
Asked if the UK will follow the lead of France on face coverings in workplaces, Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: ‘We constantly look at the scientific advice and the answer here is that we are not currently considering doing that.
‘And the reason is that the evidence from NHS Test and Trace that we were talking about for where people catch the disease is that very largely they catch it from one household meeting another household, usually in one of their homes.
‘So it is that household transmission that is the core, the root of passing on this virus in this country.
‘The amount of people who have caught it in workplaces is relatively low, we think, from the evidence that we have got.’
But 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.’
Professor Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, added: ‘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.’
Professor Paul Hunter told MailOnline: ‘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 UK. So office based transmission has been known to occur.
‘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 work places 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.’
Mr Hancock’s comments came after Tony Blair warned of the ‘consequential damage’ which will be done to businesses in urban centres if staff do not return to work.
The former prime minister told Sky News he had recently spoken to someone who works in the City of London at a firm with more than 300 employees where only eight members of staff have returned to the office.
Mr Blair said the only way to give workers the ‘confidence’ to return is to roll out mass testing so that people can be sure that they and their colleagues do not have the virus.
He said: ‘That is your problem. If you think of the consequential damage that does to all the other businesses who are dependent on those people being in those places.
‘When you stack all of this up if you want to give people the confidence, not just the permission, but the confidence I just don’t see how you do that unless you do the testing at the scale that we have said.’