Rise of Omicron subvariants sends UK staff absence soaring

Blow to businesses as 300,000 workers took time off due to Covid last month, with BA.4 and BA.5 the majority of new infections

Staff shortages were already a fact of life for restaurant-owner Des Gunewardena when the recent wave of Covid-19 hit.

“I visited the Butler’s Wharf Chop House earlier this week and when I asked about our general manager he was off with Covid,” said the D&D boss, who oversees 2,000 staff in outlets across the UK, France and US.

For Gunewardena, the latest round of pandemic-induced shortages have compounded an already tough market. The number of people going off sick has “gone up considerably,” he said, “piling on the problems that our London restaurants have already faced from a 10% staff shortage, the heatwave during which we lost 30% of our business and the £1m we lost in the week of rail and tube strikes”.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 infections in the past month has sent the number of workers taking sick leave soaring, according to official figures, making staff shortages even worse and forcing many employers to shut down 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 have reported staff being “knocked out” and too ill to work from home.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 1.1%, or more than 300,000 workers, took time off sick due to Covid in June.

The ONS, which provides a fortnightly report on the toll on the economy from the pandemic, said the figure for May was effectively zero because the number of incidents were small and the majority of employers failed to include it in their responses.

Employers’ organisations said the return of Covid was a further blow, in addition to ongoing staff shortages, transport disruption, the impact of inflation and a number of employees already off work with long Covid.

Tony Wilson, the head of the Institute for Employment Studies, said the recent strains of Covid were “not killing many people, but it is knocking them out”. He said the scale of the problem was not captured by official figures, which underestimated the disruption Covid was causing.

Hotels have reported shutting rooms, while restaurants have restricted bookings to reduce the number of customers they serve. Gunewardena said customers were upset when they could see empty tables but were refused a booking.

“If I take the booking, we risk a poor reaction from customers,” he said.

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 cases of BA.4 globally rose from 11% of cases in the week ending 25 June to 14% in the week ending 7 July. BA.5 rose from 42% to 50% of cases in the same period.

Prof Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “The rise in cases of Covid-19 highlights the pandemic isn’t over, and it is still putting direct pressure on general practice and other healthcare services across the NHS.

“Anecdotally we are hearing from members that the rise in Covid cases is causing more GPs and members of the wider team to become sick and unable to work, or self-isolating because they have 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 Covid rates in the population and more staff falling sick”, which she said meant “ongoing disruption to services and delays in the health service’s ability to make significant inroads into the waiting list backlog”.

ONS figures show large parts of the service sector are the worst affected. In June, 1.3% of retail staff and 1.4% of estate agents were off sick with Covid.

Education and health service employers reported a 1.7% and 1.8% rate of sickness absence due to Covid while organisations in the category “other services”, which includes hairdressers, funeral staff, shoe repairers and church staff, reported a 2.2% absence rate.

Factory owners were also hit by a 1.4% absence rate across the manufacturing sector.

The construction industry failed to register an infection rate in May or June, according to the ONS, though the industry operates using tens of thousands of subcontractors and self-employed staff, many of whom work outdoors and are likely to avoid reporting Covid symptoms to protect their incomes.

Not all types of business are covered by the snapshot survey, though it is reasonable to expect the rising Covid infection rate to apply across all 29.6 million employed workers.

Prof Kevin Fenton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said there was a growing number of people developing severe symptoms. “While we have more to learn about the new variants BA.4 and BA.5, the threat of Covid-19 remains and so too does the need for continued efforts to help prevent the spread of infection.”

He added: “Employers also have an important role to play by acting responsibly and providing proper support for those unable to work as a result of illness.”

Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk

Martin McTague, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, urged the government to consider reviving Covid subsidies to support small firms, which he said were badly affected by staff absences.

“The average cost of staff absence, including finding cover, to small employers surpassed £3,500 last year. As Covid resurges, the government should be planning for a reintroduction of the Covid sick pay rebate that proved so critical during Covid’s initial waves, and then again when Omicron surged. There must be a safety net for small firms supporting staff who are unwell,” he said.

Jane Gratton, head of people policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said employers were “doing their very best to maintain normal business operations” in the face of rising Covid infection rates and a general worsening of skills and labour shortages.


Phillip Inman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
UK inflation dips but food prices rise 17% amid squeeze on low-income families
Annual rate falls in December, although it remains at one of the highest levels in 40 years

Phillip Inman and Richard Partington

18, Jan, 2023 @7:01 AM

Article image
UK growth revised up to 5.5% amid higher NHS spending and exports rise
GDP grew faster than forecast in second quarter as fewer Covid restrictions prompted households and companies to spend

Larry Elliott Economics editor

30, Sep, 2021 @1:25 PM

Article image
New Covid variant and looming Brexit disruption deepen UK economic gloom
Our latest snapshot of key economic indicators show retail sales falling, job losses soaring, GDP growth and stock market stalling

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

23, Dec, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
UK economy poised to recover after Covid-19 second wave
Our latest snapshot of key economic indicators shows the deficit soaring but unemployment holding steady

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

31, Mar, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
UK edges towards double-dip recession as GDP falls 2.6%
Second national Covid lockdown in November ends six months of growth but decline not as bad as feared

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

15, Jan, 2021 @7:11 AM

Article image
UK economic recovery slows sharply as GDP grows by 1.3%
Surging infection rates, the ‘pingdemic’, rising prices and supply constraints put the brakes on growth

Larry Elliott Economics editor

11, Nov, 2021 @7:39 AM

Article image
UK economy bounces back from Omicron as more people dine out
All sectors returned to growth in January to help lift GDP by 0.8%, says ONS

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

11, Mar, 2022 @3:37 PM

Article image
UK's economy suffers in November but Covid vaccine hopes ease gloom
Our latest snapshot of key economic indicators shows travel down and inflation up amid double-dip recession

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

27, Nov, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
UK economy grew at record quarterly rate but recovery slowed in September
Growth surge follows easing of first lockdown but ONS data reveals recovery slowing fast

Larry Elliott Economics editor

12, Nov, 2020 @7:56 AM

Article image
Soaring inflation pushes UK borrowing to £14bn in May
Interest on debt payment leaps 70% on a year ago to £7.6bn, a monthly record

Phillip Inman and Larry Elliott

23, Jun, 2022 @8:22 AM