Omicron disrupts frontline services as No 10 orders ‘robust’ plans for huge spike in workplace absence

Emergency plans to deal with chronic staff shortages in frontline services were being put in place on Sunday as absences caused by the Omicron variant began to severely disrupt sectors from refuse collections to care homes.

As bins went unemptied in locations from Birmingham to Glasgow and one care home association asked for volunteers among residents’ families, the Government revealed that it has asked public sector bodies to test their contingency plans for staff sickness rates of up to 25 per cent.

New figures showed that Covid-related absences in the NHS in England grew by 63 per cent last week to more than 40,000, underlining a warning from one health boss this weekend that staff are working “flat out” and the next few days are crucial to understanding the trajectory of the Omicron outbreak.

Downing Street said Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to develop “robust contingency plans” for extraordinary levels of workplace absence.

More on Omicron

Officials said they were preparing for the cancellation of less urgent services over the winter. These could include consequences such as less frequent bin collections, the suspension of parking permits and the opening of libraries.

A Government source said: “It is possible that services could be interrupted but the aim is to minimise disruption so it doesn’t impact the delivery of critical services.”

From transport to emergency services and local authorities to private care providers, evidence is already fast emerging of Omicron’s impact despite the Government’s declaration of victory this weekend in its race to offer booster jabs to the entire eligible UK population by the end of December.

Care homes

The strain being placed on the care sector, which has lost thousands of staff in recent months amid controversies over compulsory vaccination and pay, was underlined this weekend with a plea from one provider for volunteers from among residents’ families.

The Independent Care Group (ICG), which represents independent providers in North Yorkshire, wrote to its members on Friday suggesting they establish banks of volunteers amid evidence that Omicron is having a “serious impact” on staffing levels.

Mike Padgham, chairman of the group, said: “It might be possible to redeploy some members of staff into caring roles and use these volunteers to assist in other tasks like reception, serving meals and so on. This is not by any means a permanent solution but might provide some extra hands if things become particularly challenging.”

With many homes having already stopped visits due to staff shortages, industry body Care England called on regulator the Care Quality Commission to suspend its inspections and redeploy its staff to help badly-stretched providers.

The sector is estimated to already have a staff shortfall of about 180,000 people and providers are scrambling to maintain safe staffing levels with agencies reportedly charging up to £70 per hour for temporary staff.

Waste collection

Local authorities in Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Glasgow and Nottinghamshire have all warned of cancelled or postponed bin collections as Covid absences reduce the availability of crews.

Birmingham City Council said workers had volunteered to perform extra shifts on Sunday to try and reduce a backlog of collections caused by staff sickness and isolation requirements. Councillor John O’Shea, the council’s cabinet member for waste strategy, said the service had been “badly affected” by Covid illness.

In Greater Manchester, two local authorities – Tameside and Salford – said collections were missed last week due to staff sickness with similar reports in Glasgow City. In Nottinghamshire, officials in Mansfield and Broxtowe warned of disruption throughout the coming week.

Emergency services

With ambulances taken off the road due to staff illness and fire brigades and police forces also stretched, 999 services are bearing much of the brunt of Omicron’s impact.

Fire service union leaders in London said official figures showed that up to 15 per cent of firefighters had been unable to work last week due to illness or self-isolation requirements, with up to a third of appliances unavailable at some points over Christmas.

One paramedic working in Sheffield alleged last week that some 999 calls to deal with urgent pains or burns – described as “category three” cases – were taking as long as 24 hours to be answered.

In Scotland, as many as 1,000 officers and support staff had reported sick last week, the highest level since the height of the pandemic last year. The National Police Chiefs Council has said current levels of absence are not affecting the ability of forces to provide their normal service.


Bus company Stagecoach and train operator ScotRail this weekend became the latest transport providers to warn of disruption caused by the Omicron variant.

ScotRail said services would be reduced for nearly three weeks until the end of January due to a “huge increase” in staff absence caused by Covid. It said the reduced timetable was designed to avoid increased cancellations and maintain reliability.

Stagecoach said the number of bus services it provides in Kent and East Sussex could be reduced this week due to staff absences.

Numerous rail operators, including GTR, Transport for Wales and South Western Railway, have already cancelled services or introduced emergency timetables.

GTR, which runs Southern Rail, Great Northern and Gatwick Express, has suspended operations on several busy routes, including all Southern services to and from London Victoria until 10 January.

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