Businesses should expect staff shortages because of a surge Omicron cases, ministers have been told.
According to cabinet sources, prime minister Boris Johnson and England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told ministers that mass worker absences are likely and a “significant increase” in hospital admissions should be expected.
Royal Mail and ScotRail are among the organisations that have said they are facing staff shortages because of Covid, while West End shows including The Lion King, Life of Pi and Hex have cancelled performances.
A spokesperson for Boris Johnson told the Guardian that public services should be able to continue to operate without disruption.
“We have strong measures in place and robust, and now tested, procedures to ensure they can continue,” the spokesperson said.
However, there are reports that many public services including waste collection, schools and healthcare were grappling with high levels of staff absence.
Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus: “The biggest challenge to staff at the moment is going to be the numbers going off sick.
“During my day shift four doctors went off Covid-positive.”
Yesterday (14 December) the UK recorded 59,077 new cases of Covid-19. So far, more than 5,300 Omicron cases have been detected.
However, many people with suspected coronavirus symptoms struggled to book PCR tests in England yesterday, with the government booking site suggesting that no slots were available.
Demand for lateral flow tests has also surged, with the government having to suspend the ability to order tests online for a second day in a row.
The TUC said that staff who are unable to work from home should be given priority access to lateral flow test kits until supply issues are resolved.
General secretary Frances O’Grady said: “With Omicron cases rising rapidly, it is even more important that people test regularly if they cannot work at home and are in contact with others. But supply problems with lateral flow tests are putting workers at risk. And it increases the danger of Omicron outbreaks in workplaces shutting down vital services.
“The government must give priority access to test kits for anyone who is required to work outside the home, to help protect workers and the community.”
New rules for fully-vaccinated people who come into contact with someone who has tested positive took effect on Tuesday, which may ease the impact the virus has on employers. Contacts who test positive or develop symptoms will need to self-isolate, but those who don’t can take an NHS rapid lateral flow test every day for seven days. Unvaccinated people must continue to self-isolate for 10 days.
The TUC also called for an overhaul of the statutory sick pay regime, echoing a similar call from the CIPD. O’Grady said it “beggars belief” that many people cannot afford to self-isolate and therefore feel they are unable to follow the rules.
“If we’re serious about controlling Omicron, we must fix our broken sick pay system once and for all,” she said.
“Ministers must raise sick pay to the level of the real living wage, and every worker should be able to get it. That’s how we make sure people can follow the rules and stop the spread.”