Businesses are seeking a change in the rules dealing with people who are close contacts of Covid-19 cases as an expected surge in case numbers in coming weeks threatens to keep increasing numbers of staff out of work.
Retail, hospitality, supply chain, transport and other businesses have all already felt staff shortages amid rising Covid cases and close contact numbers, with many workers having to restrict their movements even where they have no symptoms and negative antigen test results.
Ibec, the employers’ representative group, said the full effects in this regard will not be obvious until later next week when the post-Christmas economy returns in full.
However, its members are already finding that they have three times the numbers of people who are having to stay out of work because they are close contacts than those who actually have Covid-19 symptoms.
Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy said businesses could be further hit in coming weeks: “You could be a close contact for 40 or 50 days if you’re unlucky and had a run of it,” he said.
As things stand, close contacts who have not received Covid-19 booster vaccines must stay at home for 10 days, while those with boosters must do so for five.
“At one level, for the business it doesn’t really matter whether you’re positive or a close contact; you’re not there,” said Mr McCoy, addressing the sheer scale of staff absences. “Close contacts in volume terms seems to be driving the large numbers.”
Ibec believes restricted movement rules for close contacts need to be revised in cases where people are boosted, have no symptoms and return negative antigen tests – a move Mr McCoy believes could as much as halve current rates of absences.
Risk for retail
Retail is considered at particular risk given the relatively young age of many employees. Jean McCabe, vice-chair of Retail Excellence, said that in Dublin some businesses were deciding which branches to leave open and which to close amid staffing issues; others survived on skeleton staff.
“I think the issue of close contacts and isolation does have to be reviewed downwards,” she said, having personally experienced a “domino effect” in this regard in the run-up to the Christmas sales at her Ennis-based fashion business.
A revision of the rules would also help hospitality: the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) said 30 per cent of its members had to cease trading due to staff shortages over Christmas.
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“If one person gets it [Covid] in the kitchen, the whole kitchen is out,” noted RAI chief executive Adrian Cummins, who has also called for a suspension of self-restriction requirements in cases of non-symptomatic, boosted close contacts who undertake a series of antigen tests.
It is not just a commercial sector headache – staffing issues are proving similarly problematic across essential services. A spokesman for An Garda Síochána said: “In line with the trend among the general population the current impact of Covid-19 is more significant at this time,” although the organisation has declined to comment on specific numbers.
Speaking on Newstalk radio on Tuesday, chief executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE) Paul Reid said some hospitals were experiencing daily shortages of up to 300 staff and that priority had to be given to urgent care. A HSE spokeswoman said many hospitals are already doing so and have “curtailed elective and outpatient care”.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) had already called for non-emergency services to be scaled back, citing an “exhausted nursing workforce with high levels of burnout” and the cancellation of leave to fill rosters.
Transport too has been hit in some areas as fewer people arrive to work. The National Transport Authority (NTA) said that while there “is no immediate cause for concern on most services”, operators are experiencing an increased absence rate of between 5 and 10 per cent from both Covid and other illness.
Some services have been cancelled as a direct consequence of Covid. Irish Rail said a small number of routes would be curtailed over the duration of the week, with the normal daily rate of about 670 running trains being cut to 650.
Bus operators have advised users to monitor service updates. Dublin Bus said that while it was operating its full timetable, some disruption has resulted from “higher than usual levels of employee absence due to Covid-19”.
Bus Éireann said it was “experiencing minor disruption as a result of Covid-related absences” and is prioritising services across its 17 depots to reduce it.
On Tuesday, An Post had to close 10 post offices, a little more than 1 per cent of its 920 branches, due to Covid.
“It will be different tomorrow because some will reopen and some others might close,” a spokeswoman for An Post said, adding that the service was coping despite the difficulties.
“We are a good barometer of the country and we are certainly seeing people out as a result of [being] close contacts absolutely everywhere.”
Case study: How one business shut temporarily after staff became close contacts
When two staff members told their boss they were close contacts for Covid-19, it sparked a series of decisions and actions that would see a business close for 10 days over Christmas and cancel hundreds of bookings.
“It was just a case of keep everybody safe, get them out and close it down,” said Simon O’Connell, owner of the eponymous O’Connell’s pub in Howth that should have been entering a period of relatively bustling seasonal trade.
While he acted quickly and decisively – a combination of staff safety and damage limitation in mind – his experience exemplifies the confusion and chaos that can envelop businesses in the maelstrom of the pandemic.
“The week leading up to the 25th was really quiet this year because everybody was just terrified of catching Covid and not being able to meet their folks or their family. So we lost out on that week; everybody lost out on that week.”
Then, just as things might have picked up, O’Connell was told by two staff members on December 27th that they had been identified as close contacts. Weighing up the potential implications of positive tests, the safest option appeared to be the most severe.
On a quiet lunchtime as a handful of customers finished their meals, staff began the arduous task of cancelling the next 10 days’ worth of bookings by phone and email – up to 1,300 covers (not to mention walk-ins).
“The two girls were gone home and technically we could have kept trading because nobody else was at that time a close contact,” O’Connell said. “[But] it would come back on you. If you keep trading and everybody turns out to be positive you are just going to look terrible. And it’s not the right thing to do; you need to keep everybody safe.”
PCR tests confirmed all of the other staff members to be free of Covid. However, such are the levels of staffing that even missing two can render the running of a busy restaurant unviable.
“When there are restrictions in place [and] you take out one or two staff it really knocks you down because there is so many more procedures now than there would have been two years ago.”