‘Living with Covid’ proving easier said than done for UK workforces

We are now more than four months into the UK’s brave new ‘Living with Covid’ era, a term adopted by the government after scrapping the various restrictions that have been in place since March 2020.

Free Covid tests were the last to go in April, the final pandemic weight lifted off the economy’s fatigued shoulders. Britain was finally open for business again.

If only it were that simple. If the last two years have taught us anything, it is how no magic wand can make Covid disappear, nor indeed any of its many damaging, longstanding impacts.

The end to free universal Covid testing in April came at a bad time. Businesses up and down the country were, and still are, suffering from spiralling costs; the domestic implications from the war in Ukraine compounding the impact of national insurance rate hikes. Add in a record spike in UK Covid cases, and TUC President Frances O’Grady’s forecast of ‘a perfect storm’ for the UK economy is now edging closer.

Ripping the plaster off has led to high levels of avoidable absences, causing more disruption to businesses, especially those that rely on a smaller pool of staff to operate. Understandably given the circumstances, very few firms have introduced ‘Covid safe plans’ for their employees. Without the security blanket of free tests, worker confidence has plummeted as infections spread unchecked.

This absenteeism is a serious problem, but it can feel like a distant, theoretical concept employed by economists rather than the working man or woman. And yes, the long-term productivity cost to the economy could be crippling, but we are also feeling the effects of absenteeism in everyday life right now. When family holidays are cancelled with a few hours’ warning due to airport staff shortages, absenteeism’s real-world impact is painfully clear.

One in ten flights – or 100 a day – are forecast to be cancelled at Gatwick airport alone over the summer holidays, a prediction made when Covid cases were relatively low. Add in the fact that UK infections UK jumped by 800,000 last month and the industry could yet be brought to its knees.

The answer cannot lie in rushing workers back while still suffering from Covid symptoms. New research, led by King’s College professor Tim Spector, estimates that if people begin to return to work before their symptoms pass it could lead to an extra 240,000 hospitalisations and 30,000 deaths over the next year.

So, how do we keep workers safe? Testing remains key but with realistic and achievable parameters.

Smaller firms can implement once-a-week screening programmes of their workforce, which keeps the level of testing manageable and affordable, while ensuring high quality and accurate results. Companies with testing regimes in place have seen reductions in absenteeism and have been able to safely bring employees back into the workplace. We have witnessed employees pushing back against decisions to remove programmes, as the screenings are seen as a benefit that not only facilities their safety on site but reassures them when going about their everyday lives.

Solid testing foundations can then allow businesses to unlock longer lasting, general health benefits for their employees. Our screening programmes have shown that testing can support proactive health among staff, increase the performance of the workforce, improving the business productivity and raising overall workforce confidence and trust in their employer. This new approach to employers investing in their people and employees taking control of own health will benefit employer, employee, family and community en masse.

This is particularly important for a younger generation of workers who have acclimatised to the routine of home working and will require more convincing to return to the office. Commuter numbers are still more than 20 per cent below pre-pandemic levels – more than double the levels in most other European countries.

Having worked alongside critical industries at the height of the pandemic, I saw first-hand the immense pressures certain businesses were under to stay operational when most of the nation had ground to a halt. The rest of the UK’s business population must now react to the very real threat of spiking Covid cases and take the necessary steps to inject confidence back into workforces and bolster business resilience for the years ahead.

Stuart MacLennan
Stuart MacLennan

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