The rapid spread of Covid-19 infections over the past month has caused the number of workers taking sick leave to skyrocket, according to official figures, further exacerbating staff shortages and forcing many employers to close parts of their business.
Undermining hopes that the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants spreading across the UK would mimic the relatively mild Omicron variant of the virus, employers reported staff were ‘knocked out’ and too ill to work home.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 1.1%, or more than 300,000 workers, took sick leave due to Covid in June.
The ONS, which provides a fortnightly report on the economic toll of the pandemic, said the figure for May was effectively zero because the number of incidents was low and the majority of employers did not include it in their responses. .
Employers’ organizations said the return of Covid was another blow, on top of continued staff shortages, transport disruptions, the impact of inflation and a number of staff already on furlough. work with a long Covid.
Tony Wilson, the head of the Institute for Employment Studies, said recent strains of Covid were “not killing a lot of people, but knocking them out”. He said the scale of the problem was not captured by official figures, which underestimated the disruption caused by Covid.
Hotels have reported room closures, while restaurants have limited reservations to reduce the number of customers they serve. Hospital and GP services have reported a huge loss of staff in recent weeks as the latest strains spread through the NHS.
According to the World Health Organization, the proportion of reported BA.4 cases worldwide fell from 11% of cases in the week ending June 25 to 14% in the week ending June 7. July. BA.5 increased from 42% to 50% of cases during the same period.
Professor Martin Marshall, President of the Royal College of GPs, said: “The rise in Covid-19 cases highlights that the pandemic is not over and is still putting direct pressure on general practice and other health services across the NHS.
“Anecdotally, we are hearing from members that the rise in Covid cases is causing more GPs and wider team members to fall ill and unable to work, or self-isolate because they tested positive for Covid, further exacerbating already existing chronic staff shortages in general practice. »
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said there was “a clear link between high rates of Covid in the population and more staff getting sick”, which she said meant ” a continued disruption of services and delays in the ability of health services to make meaningful breakthroughs in the waiting list backlog”.
Figures from the ONS show that large parts of the service sector are worst affected. In June, 1.3% of retail staff and 1.4% of real estate agents were on sick leave with Covid.
Employers in education and health services reported 1.7% sickness absence and 1.8% due to Covid while organizations in the ‘other services’ category, which includes hairdressers, funeral staff, cobblers and church staff, reported an absence rate of 2.2%.
Factory owners were also hit by a 1.4% absence rate across manufacturing.
The construction industry did not record infection rates in May or June, according to the ONS, although the industry operates with tens of thousands of contractors and self-employed workers, many of whom work at outside and are likely to avoid reporting Covid symptoms to protect their income.
Not all business types are covered by the Snapshot survey, although it is reasonable to expect the rising Covid infection rate to apply to all of the 29.6 million employed workers.
Professor Kevin Fenton, chair of the Faculty of Public Health, said an increasing number of people were developing severe symptoms. “While we have more to learn about the new BA.4 and BA.5 variants, the threat of Covid-19 remains, as does the need for continued efforts to help prevent the spread of infection.”
He added: ‘Employers also have an important role to play in acting responsibly and providing appropriate support to people who are unable to work due to illness.’
Martin McTague, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, urged the government to consider reviving Covid grants to support small businesses, which he said were being hit hard by staff absences.
“The average cost of staff absences, including finding cover, for small employers exceeded £3,500 last year. As Covid resurfaces, the government should plan for a reintroduction of the Covid sick pay discount which proved so critical during the first waves of Covid and then again when Omicron surged. There needs to be a safety net for small businesses supporting sick staff,” he said.
Jane Gratton, head of people policy at the UK Chambers of Commerce, said employers were ‘doing their best to maintain normal business operations’ in the face of rising Covid infection rates and general worsening shortages of skills and manpower.