Absenteeism is crippling Britain

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With Christmas and New Year falling at a weekend, the festive break has been extended a few days into January but today should see a mass return to the office.

However, because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant, those who can work from home have been encouraged, if not instructed, to do so. This in itself is likely to mean the post-Yuletide commute is significantly reduced.

But even those who need, or want, to go into the office will find it harder to do so because of the impact of absenteeism on transport. Across the country, trains are being cancelled because there are not enough staff to run them or the stations.

Nearly a third of rail services have been axed in some areas in recent days with as many as one in 10 staff calling in sick with illnesses including Covid. Southern will not be running any trains into Victoria Station in London, one of the country’s busiest terminals, until Jan 10. At the same time, major engineering works – an annual New Year feature on key commuter routes – are scheduled to continue on some lines until next week.

Nor is it just transport that is struggling. Councils up and down the country are also cutting services, including the complete suspension of waste collections in some parts.

But the sector hardest hit of all so far is the NHS, with 10 per cent of workers – more than 100,000 people – off sick or isolating because of a positive Covid test. One hospital trust has declared a “critical incident” linked to “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages.

The occupancy of hospital beds in England is exactly the same as it was on this day in 2017 when flu put the NHS under pressure. There are fewer people in ICU units than at the start of the pandemic and patients tend to be discharged from hospital more quickly.

The crisis now facing the NHS is not brought on by a flood of seriously ill people but by a paucity of staff. The knock-on impact on other parts of the health service is already being felt, with waiting times for ambulance emergency responses at dangerous levels.

While people are being forced to isolate for what in most cases turns out to be a mild cold someone is dying from a heart attack or a stroke because help is coming too late. How is this approach sensible or sustainable?

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