Unions warn Omicron spread leaves public services in 'perilous state'

Covid staffing crisis grips UK: Unions warn Omicron spread has left public services in a ‘perilous state’ with recycling centres forced to close and bin collections under threat in London as flights are grounded and train services suspended indefinitely

  • Lewisham council said reuse and recycling centre will be shut until Wednesday 
  • Local government chiefs said staff shortages were hitting essential services   
  • Rail services in Warwickshire were suspended ‘indefinitely’ due to absences 

Unions today warned Omicron has left public services in a ‘perilous state’ with recycling centres forced to close and bin collections under threat in London – while flights were grounded and trains cancelled.

Lewisham council announced its main reuse and recycling centre will be shut until Wednesday and black bin collections would be prioritised in the event of delays to recycling collections. 

Nationwide, 6.8% of trains were cancelled yesterday, compared to an annual average of 2.9%, the Rail Delivery Group said. Trains in Warwickshire have been suspended ‘indefinitely’, affecting services between Leamington Spa, Nuneaton and Coventry.

More than 2,200 flights were scrapped globally yesterday, FlightAware tracking data shows, with Heathrow cancelling 60 flights on Sunday. Gatwick said it had only three cancellations out of 215 flights on Sunday, and none yesterday. 

Lewisham council announced its main reuse and recycling centre (pic) will be shut until Wednesday and black bin collections would be prioritised in the event of delays to recycling collections

It added that black bin collections would be prioritised in the event of delays to recycling collections 

Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, has backed the Government’s decision not to impose new Covid restrictions in England before the new year.

Sir John said the public had been ‘pretty responsible’ in its response to the spread of the Omicron variant.

‘The health minister has taken advice and looked at the data. I think his judgment where we should go in the next few days is probably fine,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

‘There are a lot of people who are aware that we are in the face of this large wave of disease. The behaviour of people in the UK, in England in particular, has been pretty responsible in terms of trying not to go out and spending a lot of time exposing yourself to the virus.

‘You look at the people on the streets, the roads are quiet, all that stuff. I think that’s likely to continue for the next week as we see how this thing evolves.’

Sir John said since the rollout of the vaccination programme there had been no increase the incidence of severe illness and death from the disease.

‘The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago – intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely – that is now history in my view and I think we should reassured that that’s likely to continue,’ he said. 

Local government chiefs have said nationwide staff shortages are particularly acute in waste collection, as well as other areas including social care and child services. 

Jon Richard, the assistant general secretary of Unison, the public services union, told the Guardian: ‘Key health, council, care and police services have so many staff off that lots are worried they will not be able to keep going.

‘That’s why extra measures to curb virus spread are of the utmost importance in the coming weeks. Years of cuts have left services with just enough staff to get by in normal times. Now Omicron has put paid to that, leaving services in a perilous state.’

Concerns have also been raised about the reopening of schools after the Christmas break, with Paul Whiteman, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, warning some pupils could be sent home if there aren’t enough staff to teach them.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC that absences had reached at ‘unsustainable’ levels at some schools, with up to 25% of staff off in the week leading up to Christmas.

‘We don’t know what next week will look like. We’re not catastrophising that but we are saying we must have a sense of realism around this,’ he said.

Other industries have been hit too, with West End actors being called up with just four hours’ notice due to cast members contracting Covid.

Charlotte Kennedy, 27, was given four hours’ notice to play Cosette in a production of Les Misérables at the Sondheim Theatre.

She told the Telegraph: ‘It was a really, really quick turnaround. I had a costume fitting, they decided what to do with my hair [there was no time for a wig fitting] and then I was just going over my lyrics, hoping they would stick.’

In the NHS, as many as 40% of its London staff could be absent in the ‘worst case scenario’ envisaged by Professor Alison Leary, chair of health care and workforce modelling at London Southbank University.

Some 351 hospital workers at Great Ormond Street Hospital Trust were ill or isolating due to Covid on December 19, according to NHS England data, compared to 70 the week before. This made up around 6.13 per cent of the trust’s entire workforce, statistics suggest. MailOnline’s graphic shows the 10 trusts in London with the greatest proportion of staff off because of Covid on December 19

Some 338 hospital workers at Barts Health trust were ill or isolating due to Covid on December 19, according to NHS England data, compared to 83 two weeks earlier. Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust had the highest Covid staff absence numbers in London, with 515 workers at home on December 19, compared to 179 two weeks earlier on December 5 (188 per cent increase). King’s College Hospital trust saw 505 Covid-related absences on December 19, followed by Imperial College Healthcare trust (365), Great Ormond Street Hospital trust (351) and St George’s University Hospital trust (206)

NHS England data shows staff absences in London due to Covid have increased from 1,100 to 3,874 over in the two weeks to December 19. It means the virus now makes up around 43 per cent of NHS daily absences in London compared to just 18 per cent before Omicron spiralled out of control

A total of 18,829 NHS staff at acute trusts were absent due to coronavirus reasons on December 19, up from 12,240 a week earlier.

This equates to around 941 staff calling in sick or isolating per day – putting further strain on the already stretched NHS.

Barts Health Trust saw 338 employees off work on December 19 either because they had caught the virus or were isolating, compared to 91 the previous Sunday.

A similar trend was seen across the capital as a whole, where Covid-related absences jumped from 1,540 to 3,874 over the same time-frame. It means the virus now makes up around 43 per cent of NHS daily absences in London, compared to just 18 per cent before Omicron spiralled out of control. More than 6 per cent of staff were off solely because of Covid at the worst-hit trust, which runs Great Ormond Street Hospital.

It comes as the Prime Minister gets set to hold crunch talks today on whether England should follow the other UK nations and introduce extra Covid curbs ahead of the New Year.

A key part of discussions around extra measures centre on if the health service can cope with an expected spike in infected patients like seen in London, coupled with soaring staff absences.  

Meanwhile the retail sector – which has already been battered by the pandemic – also faced shortages of staff during the Boxing Day sales.

It comes amid fears they will be further hit when people return from Christmas, having mixed with family and friends and spread the Omicron variant.

Gatwick, the UK’s second-busiest airport, said that it had only had three cancellations out of 215 flights on Sunday. While coronavirus has been blamed for many of the worldwide cancellations, severe weather in the US has also contributed.

Holidaymakers in search a winter getaway had their trip delayed by 12 hours during a chaotic day at Manchester Airport.

Passengers had been due to leave Manchester for Turin at 8.10am on Boxing Day, but didn’t get in the air until about 12 hours later.

They are eventually expected to arrive in Italy at about 10.30pm, meaning they will have missed out on a day of their festive break. 

People spent hours stuck on planes as they waited to leave. 

The most up-to-date figures reveal there were 842 Covid patients in intensive care on ventilators – the lowest level in two months

Michael Ackroyd, from Saddleworth, Oldham, was one of those affected by the delays.

He and his family were looking forward to starting their skiing holiday when they were caught up in the disruption.

Flight operator Tui has apologised to passengers, and confirmed the plane has now left for Italy.

The firm said the disruption was caused by a ‘technical issue’. Mr Ackroyd said the plane that passengers had been due to fly to Turin on had a ‘leaky toilet’.

They waited on the plane for ‘three hours’ until passengers were removed from the aircraft, so a replacement plane could be found.

Several hours later, passengers were then brought onto a new plane, at about 3.45pm.

After another hour, Mr Ackroyd said they were told there wasn’t any ground staff available to transfer baggage onto the new plane for another hour.

The flight eventually left at about 7.30pm.

UK Government statistics show how the number of Covid tests being conducted has reached 1.5m a day, with the number of swabs carried out having increased massively since Omicron first emerged

Passengers were given vouchers to spend on food during the day, but one said they were told there were no meals available on the evening flight, just snacks including crisps, chocolate and biscuits.

‘With kids on board, no food and the heightened risk of COVID, though everyone should have had a PCR within 48 hours or lateral flow test with 24 hours, tensions are rising, people are distressed and patience is wearing thin,’ a passenger said.

‘To say the conditions are a disgrace is an understatement.

‘To the staff onboard the plane’s credit, they are keeping calm, answering questions and working hard making phone calls to sort out the mountain of issues this has caused.’

The delays have also affected travellers due to take the return flight from Turin to Manchester.

A TUI spokesman said: ‘We would like to apologise for the inconvenience to our customers on flight TOM2726 from Manchester to Turin which was delayed due to a technical issue.

‘We can confirm an alternative aircraft has now departed from Manchester and customers are on their way to Turin.

‘The safety and wellbeing of our passengers and crew is always our highest priority and we would like to thank passengers for their patience and understanding at this time.’

Passengers took to social media to blast their waiting times at airports due to a lack of staff.

Nationwide, 6.8% of trains were cancelled yesterday, compared to an annual average of 2.9%, the Rail Delivery Group said. File photo 

More than 2,200 flights were scrapped globally yesterday, FlightAware tracking data shows, with Heathrow cancelling 60 flights on Sunday. File pic 

Jamie Gloyne said: ‘Hey @united what is going on at Heathrow? All these people will miss their flights unless you can check us in quicker.’

He added on Twitter: ‘Never seen such lack of organization. This is chaos.’

Amira Rasool said: ‘London’s airport is really trying to gain the title of top flight security of the world.

‘Like leave my travel size mascara and Korean skincare products alone, sis.

‘Never doing another transfer through London Heathrow again. How do you take people’s travel size items from their bag because it does not fit in the one small plastic bag that you allow and then make us pay to get it back or suggest we buy new ones at your airport?

‘I ask the manager why only one plastic bag instead of two and she said for security reasons. But they let us pick the items?

‘Girl, just say you know it’s about the airport wanting us to buy products from them or pay their company to have it shipped and stop with the BS.’

Robyn Hoffe posted: ‘We are still waiting for my moms bag to be delivered. She landed at heathrow from JNB 19/12.

‘We have followed all protocols, told it would arrive 21/12 then it was sent to Edinburgh.’

She added: ‘Then promised it would be here 23/12. Now we are told case closed?? Help please!’

Chaotic scenes at Heathrow over the weekend as Covid staff shortages started to hit

A man called Maz put: ‘Are any of the Heathrow leadership team parents? Try going through Heathrow border control with your kids, the queues are always long esp for UK nationals, it sucks…

‘Oh and social distancing in non-existent at Heathrow. ‘Oh and social distancing in non-existent at Heathrow.’

After numerous flights were cancelled yesterday, domestic travel was also hit by illnesses among staff which hampered services.

Plans over the festive period are being badly affected by a triple threat of industrial action, planned closures and staff shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

West Midlands Railways announced yesterday morning that services between Leamington Spa, Nuneaton and Coventry had been suspended indefinitely.

A spokesman added: ‘The Coronavirus pandemic – and more recently the Omicron variant – has had a significant impact our workforce meaning more of our colleagues are having to self-isolate.

‘Whilst we make every effort to run the planned train service, we need to let you know that in December, we will be making changes to services between Leamington Spa – Nuneaton via Coventry. It will be served by rail replacement bus until further notice.’

Commuters and travellers to the capital can expect similar travel woes, with the Tube hit by planned closures.

The Piccadilly line has been closed between Heathrow Airport and Acton Town until December 30. 

A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group said: ‘Train companies are prioritising running the maximum number of trains possible during the festive period as we know how important this Christmas is for people and our mission is to get everyone to where they are going. 

‘To help us do this, we’re asking people to please check before they travel.’ 

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