British employers are warning of fast-rising staff absences during the latest coronavirus wave, which has taken Covid-19 infections to their highest ever level in the UK.
Company executives said infections have hit whole teams of workers as a version of the Omicron coronavirus variant known as BA.2 spreads rapidly.
Staffline, which provides temporary workers across the UK, said cases of Covid had reached a high level for blue-collar jobs in January when the original Omicron variant took hold, but now white-collar positions in financial and professional services were being affected after people returned to the office.
In London, financial services executives reported that meetings were being cancelled at a high rate as people fell sick.
Coronavirus infections reached a record high across the UK in the week ending March 26, with 4.9mn Britons having Covid, according to the Office for National Statistics.
This was an increase of 15 per cent on the previous week. Infection levels eclipsed those recorded when Omicron swept the UK in early January, at which point 4.3mn Britons had Covid in one week.
The record number of infections comes after the government ended coronavirus restrictions in England and rolled out its “living with Covid” strategy, which has brought an end to free tests.
Kara Steel, senior statistician for the ONS infection survey, said the rapid rise in infections was “fuelled” by the Omicron BA.2 offshoot.
Make UK, the trade body which represents UK manufacturers, said Covid cases were now higher among its members than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
But it added this was not “throwing up the same critical number of absences as during the ‘pingdemic’ of last summer because employees are not required to self-isolate if they have no symptoms”.
One executive at a Newport-based construction company said Covid was “spreading like wildfire . . . people are working as they need the money and reinfecting each other”.
Craig Beaumont, chief of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said one in seven UK businesses reported they were not fully trading as teams fell ill.
“Having brought more people back to the workplace, bosses are now increasingly worried at having more Covid-19 there, too,” he added. “In the face of such disruption, this is the wrong time for the government to withdraw free testing and downgrade safer workplace guidance.”
The government has told business lobby groups that there will be no rules on how companies treat staff with Covid.
However, the government is preparing to publish “principles for employees” to help companies come up with their own policies.
The latest government guidance for England says people with Covid symptoms should “try to stay at home and avoid contact with others . . . until they feel well enough to resume normal activities”.
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said the latest Covid wave posed a huge challenge to workforce resilience.
“It’s a challenge for how to keep your workforce together and not wipe out the whole office by someone coming in with an infection, as there’s no clear guidance on people coming to work with a runny nose who most likely have Covid,” he added.
Spector said the UK was likely to face “elevated staff absence rates” over the long term because of stubbornly high Covid transmission and the effects of long Covid.