Three Million Britons Were Off Work Sick in the First Week of 2022


The rapid spread of the omicron variant drove a sharp increase in the number of people missing work in the U.K. during the first week of January, according to an analysis of workplace attendance data carried out for Bloomberg News.

About 3 million workers were on sick leave from Jan. 3 through Jan. 9, according to GoodShape, which tracks work-related illness and wellbeing at U.K. employers. New cases of absence rose 1.6 million in the period, an 18% jump on a year earlier.

The snapshot of absences at the beginning of the year is one of the first indications of the impact the omicron surge is having on the U.K. economy. GoodShape combined its data with official population and wage statistics to extrapolate nationwide figures, estimating that absences last week cost the U.K. 1.3 billion pounds ($1.8 billion). That was up 9% from 2021 despite the fact that a new year public holiday meant many businesses were closed on Jan. 3.

The period covered by the data includes the days immediately after the Christmas and new year holidays, when large numbers of Britons were either infected with Covid-19 or in self-isolation. At the peak of the omicron wave, on Jan. 4, the U.K. reported 218,724 positive cases of Covid-19. 

Absences among government employees, including local authority staff, were up 26% in the first week of January compared to a year earlier, the biggest rise across a host of sectors. At the same time an estimated 562,000 employees were off work  in the U.K.’s health and life sciences sector, GoodShape said, indicating the pressure facing medics and staff at hospitals facing rising Covid-19 admissions.

The current situation is “risking patient safety, quality of care and staff health and wellbeing,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, an association that represents hospital trusts across the country.

“This level of pressure on our workforce caused by rising staff absences as well as the lack of a national long-term plan and nearly 100,000 vacancies going into the pandemic is not sustainable,” Hopson said.

The U.K. is considering reducing coronavirus self-isolation periods as pressure grows on key services across the economy. Schools are among those struggling, with an estimated 8.8% of the total school workforce absent on Jan. 6, the Department for Education said. At least 585 former teachers have signed up to return to classrooms, the department said in a statement.

GoodShape figures also show that more than half of people now missing work are absent because of medical infections, including testing positive for Covid-19, with just 12% absent work for non-medical reasons — including self-isolation. A year ago those figures were almost equal, the company said.

Alun Baker, GoodShape’s chief executive officer, said there is now “little doubt Omicron’s impact on workplace health and wellbeing is growing.”

“Employers have a tough job, trying to ensure the wellbeing of working staff is protected whilst maintaining productivity,” Baker said.