December Covid absences highest since records began, figures show

ONS estimates 3 per cent of the workforce was away because of symptoms or self-isolation during the last month of 2021

More people were absent from work in December last year because of Covid-19 than at any time since records began in June 2020, official figures have shown.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that in the last month of 2021, 3 per cent of the UK’s workforce was either off sick or not working because they had coronavirus symptoms, or they were self-isolating or quarantining. 

This increased to 7 per cent among service sector businesses including hairdressing and other beauty treatments, while the accommodation and food services sector had an estimated Covid-related absence level of 6 per cent.

Both these sectors also saw the largest growth in Covid-related absences throughout the month, increasing by 5 percentage points and 4 percentage points respectively from early to late December.

The ONS also reported that while December saw a slight reduction in the number of employees working from an office or other workplace, the majority of people were still attending work in person.

More than half (57 per cent) of the workforce was estimated to be working from a designated workspace (not from home) in late December, down from 60 per cent earlier in the month. This was the lowest proportion since this data was first collected in early October 2021.

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The figures come at a time when many sectors are concerned about the impact that the Omicron variant is having on staffing levels. Separate figures from NHS England found that more than 40,000 of its staff were off work every day last week because they either had Covid or were self-isolating.

And earlier this month, the government asked public sector employers 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 at the time.

This was echoed by Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, who said communication was key for firms facing problems because employees are ill or being asked to self-isolate.

“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.