Businesses should prepare for staff shortages due to Omicron, expert says

Sam McConkey says highly transmissible variant hitting ‘working age group’ of population

Businesses should be prepared to lose up to 30 per cent of staff from Covid-19 related absences in the coming weeks, as the Omicron variant spreads through the population, an infectious diseases expert has said.

Professor Sam McConkey said the highly transmissible new variant was hitting the "working age group" of the population.

Employers should plan for 20 to 30 per cent of staff to be absent due to Covid-19 in the coming weeks, he told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny show.

“The working age group are going to get a lot of Omicron over the next few days and weeks,” Prof McConkey said.

“So all businesses, essential services, need to plan for 20 or 30 per cent of their workforce (to be) out with symptoms or out caring for sick children or vulnerable family members,” he said.

Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer, said the incidence of the disease among younger people has "increased sharply" over the last week.

A quarter of those aged 16 to 34 presenting for PCR tests were positive for the virus, one of the highest rates since the pandemic began, he said.

Prof McConkey warned this would likely lead to a “workers shortage” over the coming weeks, during the potential height of the wave. “Essential businesses will need extra people on standby to get through January and February to keep functioning”, he said.

Temporary closures

Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said several restaurants and pubs had already been forced to temporarily close in recent weeks, due to the high numbers of staff out sick with Covid-19.

Restaurants were seeing higher levels of front of house staff contracting the virus, given the high rates in the community, he said. As many hospitality businesses were already facing staff shortages, absences as a result of Covid-19 would be “very difficult” for many restaurants, he said.

The wave of staff absences has not been an issue for the retail sector “just yet”, according to Duncan Graham, managing director of Retail Excellence.

The extension of the number of days a close contact who has not received a booster vaccine must restrict their movements, from five to 10 days, was “going to be a headache,” he said.

Danny McCoy, chief executive of business representative group Ibec, expected many sectors would be hit with “significant” staff shortages in the coming weeks, due to self-isolation requirements for close contacts.

“Essential industries and frontline services must not be crippled by the ‘pingdemic’ effect and for this to be the case, we need a practical, ongoing review of self-isolation guidelines,” he said.

Transport for Ireland has also warned some public transport services and routes would not be running in line with schedules, “due to a high level of Covid-related staff absences”.