Staff absences from the Omicron Covid variant are leaving public services in a “perilous state”, a union leader has said, amid dire new warnings about the variant’s impact on the NHS workforce.
Up to 40% of NHS staff in London alone could be absent due to the rise in Covid-19 infections in the ‘worst-case scenario’ experts envisaged, it revealed on Monday.
“We hope this is a worst-case scenario, but as we are already seeing an increase I think it would not be unrealistic to expect this to increase significantly,” said Professor Alison Leary, Chair of Health Care and Workforce Modeling at South Bank University London.
London’s absence rate rose by around 30 per cent, according to the organisation, which included people in isolation due to positive tests, she told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.
Dr Ian Higginson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the program that the number of staff absences from NHS emergency departments could “push us over the edge”.
Severe staff shortages could also undermine efforts to keep pupils in schools, with headteachers in England saying they could be forced to send children home if they don’t have enough staff .
Despite Boris Johnson’s pledge to avoid a repeat of January 2021, when the government insisted schools stay open, only for them to be closed after a U-turn, school leaders warn the spread Omicron’s rapid response could result in mass staff absences when schools reopen.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC that staff absences had been at “unsustainable” levels at some schools, with up to 25 per cent of staff over the course of the week before the Christmas holidays.
Staff shortages are also felt at all levels in other sectors such as transport, where rail operators have reduced services and implemented measures such as running longer trains.
The Rail Delivery Group, the The British rail industry member body, said that in the seven days to Friday December 24, an average of 5.4% of trains were cancelled, compared to an annual average of 2.9%. More recent data is not yet available.
Local authorities are also concerned about staff absences, which are particularly acute in adult social services, children’s services and waste collection services. Its membership body, the Local Government Association, said councils fear existing staffing shortages “will get worse”.
Covid-related staffing shortages were already biting when it came to basic day-to-day services. Lewisham Council in London tweeted on Monday that its reuse and recycling center was closed until Wednesday and that black bin collections would be given priority in the event of delays to waste and recycling services.
Jon Richard, deputy general secretary of Unison, whose 1.3 million members work mainly in public services, told the Guardian: ‘The main health, advice, care and police services have so many staff that many fear not being able to continue.
“That’s why additional measures to curb the spread of the virus are of the utmost importance in the coming weeks. Years of cuts have left services with just enough staff to get by in normal times. Now Omicron has paid for this, leaving the services in a perilous state.
The National Council of Chiefs of Police said that it has continued to closely monitor absentee rates within the police service, which currently has no effect on the ability of the forces to provide their normal service to the public.
Lucy Moreton, a professional officer at the Immigration Services Union, said Covid-related absences in frontline services were increasing, but added that this was also accompanied by non-Covid-related absences, in particular the work-related stress.