U.K. Firms Grapple With ‘Impossible’ Numbers of Covid Absences
Much of the U.K. economy is starting the new year on sick leave.
With Covid infections soaring to about 200,000 a day as the omicron variant spreads, hospitals, restaurants, transport operators and retailers are facing acute levels of staff absenteeism.
England’s National Health Service is coming under particular pressure. On Tuesday, Matthew Taylor, chief executive officer of the NHS Confederation, which represents U.K. health-care workers and hospitals, told Times Radio that the scale of absences is “becoming almost impossible” to handle.
Southern Trains has canceled services into London Victoria, and the Gatwick Express has been suspended because of staff sickness. At Iceland Foods, Covid-related absences have risen by almost 700 week-on-week to more than 1,700 people, according to Managing Director Richard Walker.
Faced with a re-run of last year’s pingdemic -- where a surge in alerts from the U.K.’s Covid-19 mobile app wreaked havoc on employers as staff were forced to self-isolate -- many businesses are calling on the government to reduce the self-isolation period for people testing positive for Covid to five days.
“It would be very helpful to business if the isolation period was cut,” Iceland’s Walker said in a tweet on Monday.
But the government has so far resisted changing the rules. Its calculations suggest that as many as 30% of people could still be infectious on day six. That leaves firms with little choice but to hope the peak of infections may have passed, something some scientists say may have already happened.
Neil Ferguson, a professor at Imperial College London whose data informed the government’s decision to enter lockdown in March 2020, told BBC Radio Four that cases may have already reached a plateau in London and could fall in coming weeks.
At D&D London, operator of 43 restaurants and bars including London’s Coq d’Argent, about 15% of staff were self-isolating before the holiday season -- a figure that dropped to 10% by Christmas Eve, and has since reduced further.
“This is a very slow week with only a gradual return to work and government advice that we should all work from home, so staffing is not a big issue -- but it will be from mid-January when revenue really picks back up,” Chief Executive Officer Des Gunewardena said in an interview.
At sandwich chain Pret a Manger, about 4% of employees are absent -- the most since the start of the pandemic. The company has been forced to shuffle staff between outlets to limit the number of temporary closures, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Simon Emeny, chief executive officer of pub chain Fuller Smith & Turner Plc, told Radio Four that absenteeism had peaked at its venues in London before Christmas, when 450 of the company’s 4,000 staff were off sick. As of Monday, that figure had dropped to 250.
In the U.K. grocery industry, sickness rates are rising again too, although the biggest operators say the numbers of workers either ill or isolating at home is still only about half of the levels reached during previous waves of the pandemic.
Rail operators Southern, Great Northern and Thameslink said in a statement they will all operate a reduced timetable from Tuesday because of “significantly increased staff sickness.” About 9% of the group’s workers are off.
Rival LNER said it has been operating a reduced timetable since December due to train crew shortages caused by staff self-isolating.
A spokesman for Transport for London, which runs London’s tube and bus network, said that at the last count 500 of its 28,000-strong workforce was off because of Covid. This hasn’t affected Tube services, he said, though the Waterloo & City line is closed until Jan. 10.
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