Covid staffing shortages expected to last into the new year, experts warn

Firms have been urged to create a ‘culture of trust’ to help support and engage with staff who are ill or self-isolating

Employers have been warned that the Omicron Covid-19 variant could exacerbate ongoing staffing shortages into the new year, with experts urging firms to continue to communicate with and support their staff.

Several rail operators have already been forced to cancel services and issue reduced timetables because of staffing shortages caused by the virus, while on Sunday (2 January) the government asked public sector bodies to create plans preparing for “worst-case scenario” absence rates of 25 per cent.

“As people return to work following the Christmas break, the high transmissibility levels of Omicron mean business and public services will face disruption in the coming weeks, particularly from higher than normal staff absence,” Steve Barclay, cabinet minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said over the weekend.

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme this morning, Alex Hynes, chief executive of ScotRail, said coronavirus was the major reason behind the rail provider’s decision to introduce a reduced timetable. “We saw record Covid cases in Scotland yesterday – 20,000, the highest on record – and clearly our staff are affected by that,” he said.

“We employ 5,000 people [and] we’ve got hundreds of people absent from work either because they’ve got Covid or they’re having to isolate as part of a household and clearly where that affects our train crew that can lead to a cancellation.

Asked whether a relaxation of self-isolation rules in Scotland would help, Hynes said: “Clearly a change from 10 days to seven days might help us a little bit [but] the effect of that might be overstated because of course we must remember that actually a lot of people do have Covid.”

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South Western Railway, CrossCountry and LNER were also among the rail providers whose services had been impacted by Covid-related staffing shortages.

Also speaking to the Today programme this morning, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said communication was key for firms facing problems because employees are ill or being asked to self-isolate.

Businesses needed to create a “culture of trust where people are able to talk about when they are ill, when they are asymptomatic and then how we deal with these things,” he said, adding that engagement was also important for firms looking to reassure staff who are being asked to attend the workplace.

“We’ve seen through the course of the pandemic that many people are saying ‘you may be asking me to come back to work but I’m not sure it’s safe. I’ve got to travel to get there, I may be around other people who are vulnerable’,” said Cheese, describing this as an “important shift in the dialogue” between organisations and their workforces.

“While we are hopefully more in the end phases of this particular pandemic, we need to be sure that we’re understanding how we support the wellbeing of our people in all different aspects and how we create safe workplaces and look after our people effectively,” he said.

Cheese also called for a reform of statutory sick pay, cautioning that at its current rate of just £96.35 a week for those eligible, there was a risk people could decide to attend work when they shouldn’t.

“I think this is a time, as for so many things in the world of work, to reconsider different ways in which we manage our people in different circumstances… and [reforming SSP] is a very important way that we need to think about this if we’re going to be seeing more of these sorts of trends of sickness and absence from work in the future,” said Cheese.