Britain risks being brought to a standstill by soaring Covid cases, a shortage of tests and the seven-day quarantine period, NHS and business leaders warned yesterday.
As absences linked to the Covid isolation crisis worsened last night, a rail operator cancelled commuter trains into one of London’s busiest stations for more than ten days.
Meanwhile, so many health workers are being forced to stay at home that there may not be enough doctors and nurses to run new ‘Nightingale’ units.
Close to a million employees are now believed to be stuck at home, with restaurants forced to close and deliveries hit by the ‘astronomical’ numbers off sick.
Business leaders, MPs and some scientists repeated calls to follow the US and cut the self-isolation period for those who test positive to five days to protect essential services, as record numbers catch the milder but more contagious Omicron variant.
But despite warnings the situation will worsen further as many people return infected with Covid after visiting family over Christmas and going out on New Year’s Eve, ministers are currently resisting the clamour to reduce the quarantine time further.
There is also growing pressure on the Government to secure more tests amid soaring demand and a global shortage of supplies, with Wales giving four million rapid lateral flow kits to the NHS in England.
Britain risks being brought to a standstill by soaring Covid cases amid a shortage of tests and the seven-day quarantine period
general view of construction of a Nightingale ‘surge hub’ at St George’s Hospital, in south west London, on Thursday
Ten-day wait for a train
Rail passengers are facing New Year travel chaos caused by Covid and other problems.
Southern said yesterday that no trains will run into or from London Victoria until January 10 due to high levels of ‘coronavirus isolation and sickness’ among staff.
Other operators including Avanti West Coast, Greater Anglia, London North Eastern Railway, Northern and ScotRail have also cancelled trains for this reason.
CrossCountry will run ‘a very limited timetable’ due to a 24-hour strike starting today over the role of guards.
More disruption will be caused by engineering work at London Victoria and on the Transpennine route.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said supplies of tests are likely to be rationed over the next fortnight as health officials struggle to cope with ‘huge demand’.
He warned in a letter to MPs that tests will need to be prioritised for ‘vulnerable groups’, such as care home residents and staff.
Mr Javid told MPs: ‘In light of the huge demand for LFDs [lateral flow devices] seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day.’
The Government will triple supplies for January and February from an anticipated 100million to 300million per month.
Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen said last night: ‘The biggest threat facing the NHS is forced absenteeism due to people isolating with a cold. It’s exactly the same for private businesses.’
Craig Beaumont, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: ‘We are now well on our way to one million people sick with Covid or self-isolating, which is seeing a rapid rise in staff absences.
‘This will worsen in the New Year as people return from Christmas.’
John Foster, of the Confederation of British Industry, said the level of workers’ absences was ‘starting to bite firms’ and cutting isolation to five days would be ‘a pragmatic choice that can help keep the economy moving’.
Construction workers at work building a Nightingale ‘surge hub’ at St George’s Hospital amid rising Covid cases
Professor Mark Walport (pictured, the former chief scientific adviser, described the number of Covid cases as ‘astronomical’
The British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing said healthcare staff should be prioritised for tests to avoid staffing shortages.
The London Ambulance Service said 12 per cent of its workforce was off sick as of the week before Christmas.
Southern Rail announced ‘due to the ongoing effect of coronavirus isolation and sickness’ there would be no direct services to and from London Victoria until January 10, preventing tens of thousands from returning to work.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, the former chief scientific adviser, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: ‘There is an astronomical number of infections in the UK at the moment, which means it’s not just health and social care workers off sick, but also delivery drivers.’
Professor Tim Spector, who leads King’s College London’s Zoe Covid study, said: ‘I believe five days is sensible for the UK, if the individual has two lateral flow tests negative. This means the risk of infection will be significantly reduced.’
The NHS app is insisting people in England self-isolate for ten days despite the period being cut to a week if negative.
It says people will not receive a Covid pass until ten days have passed. This means they may not be able access venues such as nightclubs even if out of isolation after seven days.