Omicron sparks fears of workforce crisis in run-up to Christmas | News

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Industry bosses have expressed fears the emergence of the Omicron variant could cause a new workforce crisis in the crucial run-up to Christmas.

Supermarket leaders and suppliers held emergency talks with Defra today to discuss the latest information about the outbreak, with the government announcing it will bring back weekly talks with the industry if the crisis worsens.

Sources said they had been given a “very detailed scientific briefing” by the Health Security Agency (HSA) on the potential of the virus to spread, with confirmation it had already breached the important R figure of 1.

Defra also revealed HGV drivers would be exempt from the pre-departure testing regime which has been introduced by ministers to protect against the spread of the variant, to safeguard against a possible impact on the existing HGV driver shortages.

However, one source said there had been “more questions than answers” when it came to how Omicron could impact the supply chain, both in retail and food production.

“There is a huge amount of uncertainty and Defra confirmed if the situation deteriorates then the FRIF will be reconvened more regularly,” said a source who was involved in the Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF) meeting.

“Defra assured us it is taking every possible precaution against Omicron, but the sad fact is that until we know how serious the effects are and how effective vaccines are against it we will not know the full threat,” said another source.

“The major concern, apart from the wider threat to public health, is that we could see a return to the source of workforce pressures that hit early in the pandemic just as we go into Christmas. Already we have reports of several schools closing, which alone is going to have an impact on workforce availability.”

News that HGV drivers would be exempt from rules on pre-departure testing was welcomed by those at the meeting.

Defra also sought to reassure industry bosses about the levels of availability going into Christmas, revealing availability was around 87%, compared to the low 80s at the height of the HGV driver shortages.

It is understood to have described the availability situation as “stable and manageable”.

A source at the meeting said: “If you were a branded supplier and you had 87% availability then someone would be getting fired, but if you’re looking more generally it’s not as disastrous as some were fearing.

“The key thing is that as we’ve approached Christmas availability has been improving, whereas normally it gets worse.”