Bin collections have been cancelled across the country amid staff shortages, as the Government prepares for up to a quarter of public sector workers to be absent due to Covid.
Councils in Manchester, Essex, Somerset and Buckinghamshire have scaled back or suspended waste collections due to staff being off sick with Covid-19 or in isolation.
Chelmsford City Council said 23 members of staff are currently absent and have cancelled three days’ worth of food waste collections, while 1,000 recycling bins were not collected in North Somerset.
It comes after the Government asked public sector leaders to plan for a worst-case scenario of up to a quarter of staff being absent as coronavirus continues to sweep across the country.
Ed Argar, Minister for Health, said asking leaders to make contingency plans was “the responsible and sensible thing”.
However, he argued that clinical and scientific advice had urged against slashing self-isolation from seven days to five days to combat absences, as critics have demanded.
Shortages of lateral flow devices (LFDs) and PCR tests, reported across the country in the past week, are also contributing to the staff absence problem. While recent rule changes allow people to leave self-isolation if they take a test and return a negative result both on days six and seven, they must isolate until day 10 if they cannot take a test.
It is understood that the Government will this week announce plans to prioritise all public sector key workers for LFDs. It comes after The Telegraph revealed last Friday that ministers were examining plans to allow nurses, lorry drivers and Government officials to jump the queue for tests.
Key workers front of queue
Under the blueprint that has been approved, millions of workers in the NHS, education and childcare, national and local Government, prisons, transport, national security and funeral service sectors, as well as utilities and food distribution staff are set to gain preferential access to the tests.
It remains to be seen whether individuals will be required to provide proof of their profession, or whether access will be based on an honesty system.
The Cabinet Office said on Saturday that, so far, disruption caused by omicron had been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”.
But it said leaders had been asked to test plans against 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 25 per cent workforce absence rates.
Asked whether he thought such absence levels were likely to occur, Mr Argar told Times Radio: “I think we model a range of scenarios up to things we think are highly unlikely, but you still do it because that’s what a responsible Government does in preparing for all eventualities.”
It comes as the public continue to struggle to access rapid tests, exacerbating staff absences as they are unable to end isolation early without two negative tests.
New data revealed almost one in 10 NHS staff were absent on New Year’s Eve, according to figures seen by The Sunday Times.
Jon Richards, UNISON assistant general secretary, said the Government must deliver more rapid tests and prioritise them for essential workers or risk a return of the “pingdemic” seen earlier this year.
A proportion of tests are already set aside for NHS staff and distributed through regional NHS teams.
More than a million rapid tests had been set aside since mid-December and further contingency plans have been put in place to allocate millions more, it is understood.
But public sector groups warned that, without making contingency plans for other key workers, “services may struggle to cope”.
“The Government must deliver kits in the large numbers needed and make sure key workers are at the front of the queue,” Mr Richards said.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils across England, said waste and recycling crews have been particularly affected by staff absences over Christmas and New Year, and called on council services to be prioritised for tests.
In Tameside, Greater Manchester, green and black bin collections were delayed “due to increased numbers of staff being off sick with Covid”.
In Cheshire East, Covid staff sickness rates and HGV driver shortages had “heavily affected” crews and local contractor Ansa were forced to rearrange Christmas collection schedules.
While in Buckinghamshire, garden waste collections were suspended in Chiltern and Wycombe “due to a high level of sickness”, with rubbish, food and recycling prioritised.
An LGA spokesman said a recent survey of members found around half of councils had seen services disrupted due to staff absences.
“As cases of Covid-19 rise in light of the omicron variant, councils are concerned that these existing staffing issues may get worse, potentially impacting on service delivery in some areas and they are putting in place contingency plans to address this,” the spokesman said.
‘Extreme and unprecedented’
On Sunday night, Lincolnshire United Hospitals declared a critical incident due to “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages.
An internal memo said the shortages were resulting in “compromised care across our hospitals, and an inability to maintain a number of key pathways, including those around stroke and cardiac care”.
“The rapid increase in staff absence because of sickness is the largest factor in this deterioration in staffing levels, although reduced bank and agency fill is also a factor,” the memo, first reported by The Sunday Times, said.
The Trust confirmed to The Telegraph it was calling on staff to volunteer for extra hours to improve the situation over the next 72 hours.
A decision will now be made whether to stand down other services to allow staff to be deployed to urgent and emergency care over the next week, the memo said.