Three million Britons were off work sick in the first week of 2022

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LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – The rapid spread of the Omicron variant drove a sharp increase in the number of people missing work in Britain during the first week of January, according to an analysis of workplace attendance data carried out for Bloomberg News.

Employee absences increased by 18 per cent to an estimated 1.6 million between Jan 3 and 9 compared to the same period last year, according to GoodShape, which tracks work-related illness and well-being at British employers.

In total, GoodShape estimated that 3.1 million Britons were affected last week, despite the fact that a New Year public holiday on Jan 3 meant some workers enjoyed a four-day week.

The snapshot of absences at the beginning of the year is one of the first indications of the impact the Omicron surge is having on the British economy.

GoodShape combined its data with official population and wage statistics to extrapolate nationwide figures, estimating that last week’s wave of absences cost Britain 1.3 billion pounds (S$2.4 billion).

The period covered by the data includes the days immediately after the Christmas and New Year holidays, when large numbers of Britons were either infected with Covid-19 or in self-isolation.

At the peak of the Omicron wave, on Jan 4, Britain reported 218,724 positive cases of Covid-19.

Absences among government employees, including local authority staff, were up 26 per cent in the first week of January compared to a year earlier, the biggest rise across a host of sectors.

At the same time, an estimated 562,000 employees were off work in Britain’s health and life sciences sector, GoodShape said, indicating the pressure facing medics and staff at hospitals facing rising Covid-19 admissions.

The current situation is “risking patient safety, quality of care and staff health and well-being”, said Mr Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, an association that represents hospital trusts across the country.

“This level of pressure on our workforce caused by rising staff absences as well as the lack of a national long-term plan and nearly 100,000 vacancies going into the pandemic is not sustainable,” Mr Hopson said.

Britain is considering reducing coronavirus self-isolation periods as pressure grows on key services across the economy. Schools are among those struggling, with an estimated 8.8 per cent of the total school workforce absent on Jan 6, the Department for Education said. At least 585 former teachers have signed up to return to classrooms, the department said.

GoodShape figures also show that more than half of people now missing work are absent because of medical infections, including testing positive for Covid-19, with just 12 per cent absent work for non-medical reasons – including self-isolation. A year ago, those figures were almost equal, the company said.

Mr Alun Baker, GoodShape’s chief executive officer, said there is now “little doubt Omicron’s impact on workplace health and well-being is growing”.

He said: “Employers have a tough job, trying to ensure the well-being of working staff is protected whilst maintaining productivity.”

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