The age of the office is over – the future lies in Britain’s commuter towns

“Clearly the idea of corporate space, of the company building, is in crisis. As for office work, I sense the future lies with small towns and suburban villages, those not about to be wrecked by Robert Jenrick’s Los Angeles-style planning changes. It lies in places commuters call home, where they can replace the ties of office with those of neighbourhood. The shift may be no more than 25%, but in demography a trend is a revolution.” [Owl emphasis]

Simon Jenkins 

Is the office dead? Not an office, which everyone needs, but “the office”, the institution, the corporate HQ, the great overhead in the sky. Just as once the farm gave way to the factory and the factory to the desk, so technology transforms the nature of work. At the turn of the 21st century the digital revolution shrank offices to tiny screens. From then on offices have lived on borrowed time. Coronavirus has called their bluff. But has bluff also been called on the office’s sovereign domain, the city centre?

When in March Boris Johnson ordered Britons to “stay at home”, I heard a death-knell sound. So shocking was this fear-based lockdown that a new Morgan Stanley survey shows that even now only 34% of British office workers have gone back to work. This compares with 76% in Italy and 83% in France.

Two weeks ago Johnson abruptly changed his mind and told office workers to report for duty. Few have obeyed. Walk through London’s Canary Wharf, Manchester’s Deansgate or Birmingham’s Colmore Row, and you see ghost cities. Offices stand vacant, shops, pubs and cafes closed and even boarded up. Come September, some workers will return, but I can find no expert who expects them in anything like their previous numbers.

In his classic biography of the Cambridgeshire village of Foxton, The Common Stream, Rowland Parker described its many traumas. They included invading Saxons, the Black Death and, most recently, the arrival of combine harvesters in the 1920s. The machines slashed the need for farm labour. The village emptied. Rural vitality was devastated.

Since then Foxton has recovered as a dormitory suburb for office workers in Cambridge and even London. But does it now face another change, that of home-working? Across Britain there must be many people wondering if they really want to fight their way to a city office block when their home can be their office. Morgan Stanley reports a mere 18% of European office workers wanting to return to an office five days a week. Fulltime home working is estimated to raise productivity by more than 16 days over a full year.

The media is awash in studies declaring that offices are good for us after all. They promote social diversity and informal contacts, offering relief from relationship claustrophobia in “getting out of the house”. Management ideology has long identified “the company” with its headquarters, its physical presence and hierarchy. The New Scientist reports the boss of Microsoft worrying that unmonitored home working will eat into the “social capital” built up in an office environment. Zoom cannot replace the gossip of “those two minutes before and after” a meeting. We know that from TV’s The Office.

None the less, office workers seem certain to vote with their feet. As a Birmingham lawyer told the Guardian, “There is absolutely no reason for us to be in this office every day – I can do my job perfectly well from anywhere.” He spoke for millions. Hence the three-quarters of American CFOs now accepting that they must introduce remote working.

How drastic the impact on city business districts will be is uncertain. Those in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds have been planned for decades on an assumption of rising office demand. The LSE cities expert Prof Tony Travers says that for them, “It’s like death, too frightening to predict. But a conservative guess might be that half of workers opt for some form of remote working, perhaps for half their time.” That is a roughly 25% cut in traditional office occupancy.

Emptying city centres of a quarter of their office workers would be commercially devastating. It would wipe out the profit margins of the shops, cafes and pubs that depend on them. Rents would plummet on newly emergent office blocks, lacking as they do the adaptability of the old Victorian streets they replace. Towers will blight townscapes as corporate dinosaurs.

Commuting has come to be seen as an unnecessary health hazard. A worker visiting his or her office will be like going shopping, an occasional discretionary activity. Yes, we will value the human contact with workplace friends, clients and associates, but not 9-to-5, five days a week. This treadmill was the ethos of Dickens’ factory work carried into the office. It is out of date.

This need not be bad news for cities. The decline in offices will leave more space for housing. Cultural and leisure activities will recover. Historic quarters – if conserved – will attract the creative industries that are seen as holding the key to modern city economies, industries that thrive on urban concentration. I was intrigued by Angus Thirlwell of the Hotel Chocolat chain bewailing to the BBC the fate of his big city outlets, while lauding his successes in Cheltenham, St Albans, Stamford and Harrogate. These are the new work hubs. If I was in the property game, I would buy anywhere with a cathedral.

Clearly the idea of corporate space, of the company building, is in crisis. As for office work, I sense the future lies with small towns and suburban villages, those not about to be wrecked by Robert Jenrick’s Los Angeles-style planning changes. It lies in places commuters call home, where they can replace the ties of office with those of neighbourhood. The shift may be no more than 25%, but in demography a trend is a revolution.

• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

Government quietly drops 1.3m Covid tests from England tally

The government has quietly removed 1.3m coronavirus tests from its data because of double counting, raising fresh questions about the accuracy of the testing figures.

Caelainn Barr 

In the government’s daily coronavirus update on Wednesday, it announced it had lowered the figure for “tests made available” by about 10% and discontinued the metric.

An update on the page read: “An adjustment of -1,308,071 has been made to the historic data for the ‘tests made available’ metric. The adjustments have been made as a result of more accurate data collection and reporting processes recently being adopted within pillar 2.”

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the changes affected data reported between 14 May and 12 August. It said there had been “a double-counting of test kits that had been dispatched”, “which had not been removed from the lab’s processed data”.

The changes were made after it was discovered fewer in-person pillar 2 tests had been carried out than originally reported, while more tests had been sent to NHS trusts and care homes. The problem was acknowledged by the DHSC on 6 July but the tests were removed from the data on 12 August.

Pillar 2 tests involve all testing done outside hospitals through commercial companies. For example, swab tests carried out at satellite testing centres, such as care homes, and home swab testing kits delivered by post.

Justin Madders, the shadow health minister, said the data on testing had been “shambolic” for months.

“To now retrospectively adjust the testing figures by 1.3m overnight – without explanation – is the latest in a long line of chaotic failings by the government on testing,” he said.

“How can we be confident that testing and tracing is working properly when basic data on the number of tests is obviously so flawed? Ministers need to get a grip of this as a matter of urgency.”

The government has previously been reprimanded for misleading the public with its testing figures. Concerns were raised after a target of 100,000 tests per day was met by adding thousands of mail-out tests to the country’s testing capacity figures at the end of April.

In a letter to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, in June, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, said: “The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.”

The Liberal Democrat health, wellbeing and social care spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said: “With so many families torn apart by this pandemic, the government must recognise the fall in public trust in their handling of the crisis.

“To avoid questions of fiddling the numbers, they must be explicitly transparent in how they have changed the data and how they will rapidly build testing capacity.

“Ultimately, we need an immediate independent inquiry so lessons can be learned more systematically.”

The revised test count comes after up to 750,000 unused coronavirus testing kits manufactured by the diagnostics company Randox were recalled from care homes and individuals because of concerns about safety standards.

The recall was ordered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the UK government instructed care homes and members of the public to immediately stop using Randox testing kits in mid-July amid concerns over their sterility.

Allyson Pollock, a clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, said: “The government needs to make clear what they mean by an adjustment and why the change has taken place. There are also big questions that should be asked about the Randox contract, and the one with Deloitte is still not published, we should really press for that.”

A DHSC spokesperson said: “In July we became aware of an overcounting issue which we publicly and transparently acknowledged and have since sought to clarify these figures subsequently.

“This does not change the fact that we have rapidly built, from scratch, the largest diagnostic testing industry in British history, with over 13 million tests delivered, and capacity to test 300,000 every day.”


England’s Covid contact-tracing app will reach 70% of those at risk

The re-designed NHS contact-tracing app, which begins trials in the Isle of Wight, will correctly identify seven out of 10 people who spend more than 15 minutes within 2 metres of another app user who has tested positive for coronavirus and warn them to self-isolate.

Sarah Boseley 

The new app has been designed in collaboration with Google, Apple and other tech companies so that it works with 99% of phones. It no longer has the major failing of the original which did not work with iPhones.

But it will struggle to compute the precise 2-metre boundary that is considered to be a safe distance from someone with the virus. Many people will be told they should self-isolate even though they spent 15 minutes just slightly further away – for instance 2.1 metres.

The designers of the app are understood to believe, from some 100,000 simulations, that this margin of error is acceptable, on the basis that people who were that close may still be at risk.

The trial which started on the Isle of Wight on Thursday will next week be extended to the London borough of Newham, to test its performance in one of the most diverse populations in the country. It will also be offered to NHS volunteer responders across England.

The new app is not a cut-down version of failed earlier attempts, but has more features, say government sources, who hope it will win the public’s trust and confidence. The contact-tracing element will depend on substantial numbers of people downloading it.

“It’s really important that we make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage with NHS test and trace. By launching an app that supports our integrated, localised approach to NHS test and trace, anyone with a smartphone will be able to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus, quickly and easily order a test, and access the right guidance and advice,” said Dido Harding, executive chair of the NHS test and trace programme.

Simon Thompson, managing director of the app, said it was vital to controlling the spread of coronavirus and designed to give people maximum freedom at minimum risk.

“We have worked with some of the most innovative organisations in the world, such as Apple, Google, scientists from the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University and governments across the world to come up with a state-of-the-art product which works to protect people everyday. It’s like NHS test and trace in your pocket,” he said.

“By giving access to the Isle of Wight, Newham and NHS volunteers first we can make this app even better before rolling out nationwide so the rest of the nation can benefit.”

The app will track the virus, not people, the government insists, anxious to avoid issues over data privacy. User data will not be centralised, as was the earlier plan, but will stay in the phone and can be deleted at any time. People using the app will get a warning to self-isolate if they have been near another app user with coronavirus, but they will not be contacted or monitored for their compliance.

If the contact is somebody in their family or at work, however, it is likely they will separately get a call or a visit from the contact tracing teams.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus,” said Harding. “The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities and work towards our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk.”

The app will also allow owners of venues such as pubs and restaurants to obtain and print a QR code that app users can scan on their phones when they visit. If there is subsequently an outbreak at the venue, app users can be alerted.

There is also a symptom checker, which will alert the user to self-isolate if they are suffering from one of the major known four symptoms of Covid-19, and a countdown function and advice for those told to self-isolate.

The latest test and trace data showed the service reached 79% of all those who tested positive, and 83.4% of their contacts where contact details were provided. The government says that is “in line with the recognised metric of success for contact tracing services across the world”.

However, critics say the system needs to do better if it is to keep the virus in check ahead of schools going back and then the winter months when people will socialise indoors.

Why does No 10 want to ‘devolve’ local councils just as they are needed most? 

“…the great disrupters digging No 10 into ever deeper holes are still at it with pickaxe and shovel. What a time to launch a colossal centralising reorganisation of local government, but that’s what next month’s white paper will do, under the misleading rubric of “devolution”. The intent is to force unitary councils everywhere, sweeping away the district councils beneath them…..”

John Hart says “I will not lead a charge” [towards unitary authorities] but will he dare to oppose? Good way to turn Devon back to Blue and get rid of all these pesky Independent and Libdem administrations! – Owl

Polly Toynbee 

Today it’s A-level maladministration, but every day some new failure shames this government beset with epochal crises. Abysmal handling of Covid-19 casts England as having the highest excess deaths in Europe, and the UK as suffering the deepest recession in the G7, while Brexit still looms.

That’s enough to busy this cabinet of incompetents. Yet the great disrupters digging No 10 into ever deeper holes are still at it with pickaxe and shovel. What a time to launch a colossal centralising reorganisation of local government, but that’s what next month’s white paper will do, under the misleading rubric of “devolution”. The intent is to force unitary councils everywhere, sweeping away the district councils beneath them: it looks neat – but it’s devoid of evidence that another great upheaval does anything but disrupt, cost money and distract council officials who are already overstretched coping with Covid rather better than Whitehall is.

District councils of all hues are putting up a fight. Why No 10 would choose this moment to rile battalions of Tory councillors, backed by their Tory MPs, is a mystery to observers. As the London School of Economics’ Prof Tony Travers reminds me, all local government reorganisations favour the party in power. This one sweeps away irritating Labour and Liberal Democrat urban district blobs holding their forts against a sea of blue county councils. Norwich, Leicester, Oxford and scores more towns and cities will put up a fight not to be swallowed into Torydom. Green- and Lib-Dem-controlled Lewes will never go quietly into the great East Sussex blue. The government is starting with North Yorkshire – but don’t expect yellow York or red Scarborough to kowtow. Nor will many Tory districts agree to be swallowed into the whales of their bigger counties.

Large sums are being squandered by districts and county councils hiring expensive consultancies to write opposing reports proving which is most efficient. Some districts’ plans bid to divide counties into fewer larger districts, though this may also gerrymander red to blue. England, says Travers, suffers “an endless churn” of reorganisations.

A prime motor for all this is No 10’s contempt for local government. Odd timing, now Whitehall is forced into a belated climb-down over test and trace, finally admitting only local council public health expertise can do it. Look how, when push comes to shove, Whitehall summons top-quality local government chief executives to run their programmes: first Leeds’ chief executive, now Oldham’s excellent leaders are recruited to repair Whitehall’s failed test and trace. Every observer notes how the calibre of local government leaders and chief executives has soared in recent years, unlike this decadent cabinet.

Whitehall departments and their ministers are the ones that should be threatened with special measures, whether it’s the Home Office over Windrush, the Department of Education over abysmal lockdown failures and now A-levels, or the Department for Work and Pensions over universal-credit fiascos. Traducing local government is just a distracting blame-shift.

The lesson is not learned: local government will be plunged into turmoil, every officer reapplying for their job under new brass plates on No 10’s whim. Subtly done, the white paper will force councils themselves to come up with their own plans to turn unitary, or receive no growth funds.

There is no optimum size, but the ministry has proclaimed a random 300-400,000 population minimum (with optional decorations of tiny parish councils with no power or money). Since the abolition of the Audit Commission, there’s no evidence on efficacy.

The more local, the more trusted the politician. Satisfaction with councillors improves with their nearness: distant county councillors elected by 9,000 voters are less trusted than nearby districts, with councillors elected by 2,000.

This is all a deliberate distraction from the one great problem: councils are crippled by cuts and an inability to raise finance, rendering them powerless. But expect no plan for financial renewal – no local sales or income tax, no Amazon tax on deliveries, no hotel and tourism tax nor any reform of council tax and business rates.

The social care crisis may summon more cash, but don’t expect that to fall to councils’ control. The “devolution” white paper will not devolve things that matter most, as Whitehall departments’ plans ignore the shape of localities: the new NHS integrated care systems don’t match existing councils, let alone planned new ones. Nor do local enterprise partnerships, local enterprise boards, nor transport authorities, nor Homes England’s social housing plans. None of the necessary push for retraining, upskilling and a “kickstart” youth employment programme will be devolved from the iron grip of the DWP to councils who know their labour markets. Lack of joined-up government in the silos at the top is reflected in each department’s hotchpotch local delivery.

Councils, in their sorry plight, need a monster reorganisation. “Take back control” turns out to be only central control. One local government think-tanker sighs and asks, “But do people care?” Let’s see how much noise the beleaguered red and yellow districts make and how angry Tory MPs will be about their own disappearing districts. Already there are signs of something amiss: the transcript of the speech by the minister for local government, Simon Clarke, in which he set out his devolution plans, was mysteriously taken down from the government’s website soon after it was put there. Just possibly, another rapid retreat by No 10 beckons.

• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

Coronavirus: Backwards tracing puts skids on superspreaders

Baroness Harding, head of NHS Test and Track, and her advisers have a “Light Bulb” moment. – Owl

Tom Whipple, Science Editor | Chris Smyth 

Using “backwards contact tracing” to identify the source of a virus cluster could double the effectiveness of the test-and-trace service, scientists say.

By working out where people got infected as well as who they went on to infect, it may be possible to stop twice as many infections being passed on.

There is increasing evidence that the virus transmits through “superspreading events”, according to a paper co-authored with researchers who sit on the government’s Sage committee.

Conventional tracing seeks to identify cases and track down the people they met after they became infectious. This is the method being employed in the UK. Backwards tracing, used in some Asian countries, seeks to identify the person who infected that first case.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe, head of NHS Test and Trace, recently had a version tested in Leicester. She promised to begin backwards contact tracing but has not committed to a date amid concerns that it would prove too labour-intensive.

In the UK the R number is about 1. This means that on average each person infects one other. However, this is only an average. Most people infect no one while a few people infect many others. This, scientists say, makes the disease especially suitable for backwards contact tracing.

“We estimate that probably about 80 per cent of transmission comes from about 10 per cent of cases,” Adam Kucharski, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said.

This is a headache for public health officials because clusters can appear suddenly as a result of “superspreading events”. It is also an opportunity.

“If you have superspreading, if you identify a case, the chances are it will have come from an event or cluster that’s generated a lot of other cases too,” Dr Kucharski said. “If you’re just asking who those people infected you might get quite a few cases but if you’re asking where did they get infected that will often lead you to a sizable cluster.

“What a number of countries are doing — Japan and South Korea, for example — is really working very hard to identify people who are associated with large transmission events that can give you a disproportionate effect.”

Dr Kucharski has co-authored a paper with colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, including Graham Medley, who sits on the Sage committee. It estimates that if the test-and-trace system were able to include backwards tracing there could be dramatic benefits. “Backward tracing increases this maximum number of traceable individuals by a factor of two to three,” they write in a paper published online before peer review.

At the moment, contact tracers only ask infected people about their movements on the two days before they got ill. Backwards contact tracing means asking them about the previous 14 days, taking up much more of tracers’ time. It had been hoped that infections could be driven down before beginning this strategy. In Leicester, the method is credited with helping to control infection rates, but has been given less importance nationally.

NHS Test and Trace is expected to launch a scaled-back version of its troubled coronavirus app today. The Times revealed last week that after the failure of trials of automated contact tracing the app has been changed to a source of personalised information, including infection levels in local areas.

Officials insist that the app will still contain some element of contact tracing, such as telling people that they have been near someone who later tested positive. But the Bluetooth signalling which shows that phones have been near each other is not yet trusted on its own as a basis for instructing people to isolate for two weeks. Instead Test and Trace will continue to rely on human contact tracers to decide.

However, Professor Christophe Fraser, a scientific adviser to the Department of Health, told the BBC: “We need the app to help stop transmission by tracing close-proximity contacts as quickly and as comprehensively as possible, capturing those contacts we don’t know or don’t remember meeting.

“The app should enable us to return to more normal daily activities with the reassurance that our contacts can be rapidly and anonymously notified if we get infected.”