Europe returns to work-from-home to stem soaring covid cases

Iain Rogers

European countries are making a U-turn in their fight against a brutal fourth wave of the pandemic, increasingly forcing reluctant companies to let employees work from home. 

Just months after people began to return to the office, Germany is poised to agree on mandatory remote working as long as there are no "operational reasons" that stand in the way. 

The Belgian government on Wednesday decreed that employees need to work from home four days a week until mid-December. In Ireland and the Netherlands, people have already been instructed to work from home where possible. 

The moves are part of a wider effort to contain a surge in coronavirus infections across the region. Europe has again become the epicenter of the pandemic, despite vaccination rates of around 70% and higher in many countries.

Visitors enter a restaurant with strict virus precautions in Munich on Nov. 15, 2021.

New measures are also being introduced to restrict access to public places for people who aren't inoculated as authorities try to increase pressure on those who've resisted getting a Covid shot. 

Governments are eschewing widespread lockdowns to avoid economic disruption and social unrest. Working from home is one of the least disruptive ways to limit contact among the broader population. Still, it's impact is limited as mainly office roles have the luxury of tele-commuting.

Volkswagen advised its German employees to start working from home wherever possible as of Monday. That isn't the case for assembly lines. 

Europe's largest automaker is preparing to adopt new rules that only allow access to factories and offices for people who are vaccinated, tested or have recovered from a Covid infection. The industrial giant also plans to ramp up its own capacity for vaccinations at its sites toward the end of this month, including for booster shots.

The reimposition of working rules isn't uncontroversial. Voka, a Flemish network of companies, called the four-day teleworking mandate "incomprehensible and inexplicable," arguing that hardly any infections take place at the office.

"Leave work organization to companies," Hans Maertens, Voka's managing director, said on Twitter. "Regulation, control, sanctions are coming at us, while we need entrepreneurship, consultation, collegiality, creativity."

Despite the disruption, the impact of the latest restrictions is expected to be limited. 

"People have learned to adapt, and fear levels remain low," said Paul Donovan, chief economist for UBS. "It is fear, not the virus, that does the economic damage."

The return to home working in parts of Europe stands in contrast to the situation in the U.K., which has so far resisted similar measures despite recording some of the region's highest Covid tallies throughout the autumn. In recent days, officials have grown more circumspect as they urge Britons to get inoculated or bolster protection with boosters.

Asked earlier this week about the possibility of another lockdown this Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson replied that there is nothing in the current data that signaled the need for restrictions, but warned: "clearly we cannot rule anything out."

Transport data indicates many Britons are still working from home. London Tube journeys stood at 58.2 million in the four weeks to Oct. 17, a little more than half the levels before the pandemic struck the country. 

Austrian Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckenstein has already appealed for workers to do their jobs at home if they can. On Friday, the Alpine nation's federal and provincial leaders will assess whether formal measures are needed. 

Countries in eastern Europe are trying to avoid imposing mandatory remote work. As hospitals become overrun again, authorities are focusing mainly on boosting low vaccination rates. Some like the Czech Republic are considering banning the unvaccinated from public events and services.

In Germany, new legislation is on the way to fight the pandemic. The law, which is being pushed through by the three parties that aim to form a ruling coalition, includes the work-from-home rule, and in some cases limits access to the workplace to people who are vaccinated, recovered or provide a negative test, as well as a raft of other measures.

Merkel's conservative alliance, which is heading into opposition for the first time since 2005, has criticized the law and has threatened to block it in the Bundesrat, the upper house where the 16 states are represented, on Friday.

The number of daily new cases in Germany rose by more than 60,000 for the first time on Thursday. As intensive-care beds become scarce, Chancellor Angela Merkel called the situation "dramatic" and warned on Wednesday that the fourth wave of the pandemic is hitting Europe's biggest economy  "with full force." 

Merkel and Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat set to replace her as chancellor early next month, will hold talks with regional premiers to coordinate the next steps -- including the work-from-home measure -- later on Thursday.