Trains across the country are being cancelled as the number of people off due to Covid-19 hits vital services, raising fears the country will come to a standstill over Christmas.
Most of the main rail operators have been forced to run reduced timetables.
Staff absences are also affecting hospitals as infections surge due to Omicron.
The Royal Mail, fire services and some supermarkets said they were suffering staff shortages and museums, theatres, pubs and restaurants are being forced to close due to the crisis, which is also affecting bin collections in some areas.
Sick pay rules have been temporarily relaxed to help free up GPs for the booster rollout, meaning workers do not need to see their doctor if they are unwell over the Christmas period.
Workers off ill normally need to get a GP-signed sick note after seven days to receive statutory sick pay or benefits, but from December 10 this was relaxed to 28 days to free up medics to give boosters. In the past week, 5.2% of trains were cancelled, up from the average of 2.9%, according to the Rail Delivery Group.
Its members reported that 8.7% of their staff were off sick due to all causes, including Covid. The RMT union, which represents transport workers, said absences would have severe consequences for services.
CrossCountry admitted the Christmas getaway would be a struggle for many as it announced “widespread disruption to our services this week”. The operator said dozens of trains were being cancelled each day, with others running with fewer carriages.
Avanti West Coast told passengers: “The pandemic is unfortunately resulting in some staff shortages.”
The firm has removed all peak ticket restrictions over the Christmas period in a bid to spread demand.
Govia Thameslink Railway said a train crew shortage meant there would be a reduced service across the Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern networks until the end of the day on Christmas Eve.
It said staff were also taking time off to receive booster jabs.
Greater Anglia said it had removed trains from its timetables due to falling passenger numbers “as people follow advice to work from home”.
Meanwhile, LNER, which runs services on the East Coast main line, is operating an amended timetable in the week before Christmas because of the number of absent drivers and train managers. Sixteen services are being cancelled each day.
The affected routes are between London King’s Cross and Leeds, and London King’s Cross and Lincoln.
A spokeswoman for LNER said services were being reduced “as a result of an increase in the number of our staff self-isolating due to Covid”.
It is offering customers refunds or fee-free re-booking.
NHS leaders expect staff sickness and self-isolation to have a significant impact in the coming weeks.
Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said yesterday: “The biggest challenge to staff at the moment is going to be the numbers going off sick.”
She added to an all-party parliamentary coronavirus evidence session: “I was on a shift yesterday and during my day shift four doctors went off Covid-positive.”
Dave Bramley, clinical director of emergency care at Sunderland Royal, said staff were already working extra shifts to cover isolating colleagues.
Hospitals in England have been told to discharge as many patients as possible.
No10 has so far dismissed fears hospitals will have to close because of lack of staff but UNISON, which represents healthcare workers, says shortages are crippling for burnt-out medics.
Head of health Sara Gorton said: “Staff have been wrung dry by pandemic pressures. Now they’re going through another wave as Omicron surges.
“Many are covering the shifts of poorly colleagues and feeling guilty they can’t provide quality care.
“Exhausted staff are suffering panic attacks and feeling anxious they’ll catch Covid again.”
Last night London’s biggest health trust, Barts, warned it might have to cancel some operations in the new year due to Covid and staff shortages.
Soaring Covid cases are causing major staffing shortages in pubs, restaurants, cinemas and other venues.
Restaurants in busy city centres have been forced to close because they do not have sufficient cover to remain open.
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Meanwhile bookings are being cancelled at an unprecedented rate as people planning get-togethers and evenings out stay at home due to fears of contracting the Omicron variant.
Royal Mail is experiencing staff absence levels which are almost double what would have been expected before the coronavirus pandemic.
Although it insists that deliveries are operating as normal in the run-up to Christmas, many sorting offices are stretched to breaking point.
Royal Mail’s website lists offices that are experiencing difficulties, which it says means they may not be able to deliver the usual service temporarily because of local issues.
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A spokesman said: “Every item of mail is important to us. Where offices are experiencing local challenges, such as higher absence levels, we’ve asked teams to rotate deliveries to minimise delays for individual customers.
“We have also reminded colleagues that the delivery, collection and processing of letters and parcels should be treated with equal importance.”
The Fire Brigades Union said nearly a third of London’s fire engines were out of action in the past week due to staff shortages.
According to the union, almost 10% of operational firefighters have either tested positive or are self-isolating.
London Fire Brigade said the pandemic was causing “staffing challenges” but it continued to meet attendance targets.
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According to the FBU, 40 fire engines out of 142 were unavailable on Thursday’s day and night shifts due to shortages, with 141 firefighters testing positive for Covid and 283 self-isolating.
FBU London regional secretary Jon Lambe said: “Omicron is having a devastating impact on the LFB, but this should not be affecting the brigade the way it is, with almost a third of our fire engines unavailable.
“The reason that’s happening is firefighter numbers being too low, due to the devastating cuts imposed on the LFB since 2010.”
LFB deputy commissioner Richard Mills said the service was still consistently meeting its attendance targets.
Almost half of London’s major theatres were forced to cancel performances last weekend because of Covid infections.
Of the 46 full members of the Society of London Theatre that had shows running, 22 scrapped performances which included Hamilton, Matilda, Wicked, The Lion King, Cinderella, Cabaret and Come From Away.
Traditionally the run-up to Christmas, including panto season, is the busiest time of the year for theatres throughout the country.
Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh said the industry was in a dreadful state.
He added: “It’s literally day-to-day. We spend all morning trying to work out if we can do the show or not. The important thing is, when we do it, it is safe, and the public have been remarkable in that they are turning up mostly to the shows.”
Food industry executives warn the alarming rise in the cases is leading to worker shortages in shops and among food suppliers and delivery drivers.
It raises the prospect of a lack of deliveries just as many shoppers are forced to isolate, disruption of supplies to stores, and even a return to the closure of small shops in the worst-hit areas if staff absences rocket.
Supply problems caused by driver shortages could also mean some customers will not be able to properly stock up before Christmas Day.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.