Businesses seek change to close-contact rules amid threat of worsening staff shortages

Companies are looking to change the rules for people who are in close contact with Covid-19 cases, as an expected increase in the number of cases in the coming weeks threatens to keep growing numbers of employees unemployed.

Retail, hospitality, supply chain, transportation and other businesses have all already experienced staff shortages amid rising Covid cases and number of close contacts, many workers having to restrict their movements even if they have no symptoms and have negative antigen test results.

Ibec, the employers’ representative group, said the full effects in this regard won’t be evident until later next week, when the post-Christmas economy fully returns.

However, its members are already seeing that they have three times as many people who have to stay out of work because they are close contacts than those who actually show symptoms of Covid-19.

Ibec CEO Danny McCoy said businesses could be hit more in the coming weeks: “You could be a close contact for 40 or 50 days if you’re unlucky and you have it. a series, ”he said.

As it stands, close contacts who have not received a Covid-19 booster vaccine must stay home for 10 days, while those with boosters must stay home for five days.

“At some level, for the company, it doesn’t matter if you are positive or close contact; you’re not here, ”said McCoy, addressing the scale of staff absences. “Close contact in terms of volume seems to be the source of the large numbers. “

Ibec believes travel restriction rules for close contact need to be revised in cases where people are boosted, show no symptoms and return negative antigen tests – a decision, Mr McCoy said, could up to halve current absence rates.

Retail risk

Retailing is considered particularly at risk given the relatively young age of many employees. Jean McCabe, Vice President of Retail Excellence, said that in Dublin some companies decide which branches to leave open and which to close due to staffing issues; others survived with a small staff.

“I think the issue of close contact and isolation needs to be scaled back,” she said, having personally experienced a “domino effect” in this regard as the Christmas sales approach in her. fashion company based in Ennis.

A review of the rules would also help hospitality: The Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) said 30% of its members had to go out of business due to a staff shortage over Christmas.

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU

“If a person gets it [Covid] in the kitchen, the whole kitchen is out, ”noted Adrian Cummins, managing director of RAI, who also called for the suspension of self-restriction requirements for non-symptomatic and reinforced close contacts that undertake a series of antigen testing.

This is not just a headache for the commercial sector – personnel issues are just as problematic in all essential services. A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said: “In line with the trend among the general population, the current impact of Covid-19 is greater at this time,” although the organization declined to comment on specific figures .

Speaking to Newstalk radio on Tuesday, Health Service Executive (HSE) chief executive Paul Reid said some hospitals were experiencing daily shortages of up to 300 employees and priority should be given to emergency care . A spokeswoman for the HSE said many hospitals are already doing this and have “cut back on elective and outpatient care.”

The Irish Organization of Nurses and Midwives (INMO) had previously called for cuts in elective services, citing an “exhausted nursing workforce with high levels of burnout” and the cancellation of leave to fill lists .

Transportation issues

Transportation has also been affected in some areas as fewer people arrive at work. The National Transport Authority (NTA) said that although there is “no immediate cause for concern for most services,” operators are experiencing an increased absence rate of between 5 and 10 percent due to of Covid and other diseases.

Some services have been canceled as a direct result of the Covid. Irish Rail said a small number of routes would be reduced during the week, with the normal daily rate of around 670 trains in circulation being reduced to 650.

Bus operators have advised users to watch for updates to the service. Dublin Bus said while it was operating its full schedule some disruption resulted from “higher than usual employee absence levels due to Covid-19”.

Bus Éireann said it was “experiencing minor disruption due to Covid-related absences” and is prioritizing services at its 17 depots to reduce it.

On Tuesday, An Post had to close 10 post offices, or just over 1% of its 920 agencies, because of the Covid.

“It will be different tomorrow as some will reopen and others may close,” an An Post spokeswoman said, adding that the service was doing well despite the difficulties.

“We are a good barometer of the country and we certainly see people coming out because of [being] close contacts absolutely everywhere.

Case study: How a business closed temporarily after staff became close contacts

Simon O’Connell, at O’Connell’s, Howth, Co Dublin. O’Connell closed his pub after two staff members were identified as close contacts. Photograph: Dara Mac Donail / The Irish Times

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 shut down for 10 days over Christmas and cancel hundreds of reservations.

“It was just a matter of protecting everyone, getting them out and shutting it down,” said Simon O’Connell, owner of the eponymous O’Connell’s pub in Howth which should have entered a period of relatively busy seasonal trading. .

While he acted swiftly and decisively – with a combination of staff safety and damage limitation in mind – his experience illustrates the confusion and chaos that can envelop businesses in the maelstrom of the pandemic.

“The week leading up to the 25th has been very quiet this year because everyone was just terrified of catching Covid and not being able to meet their parents or family. So we lost that week; everyone lost this week.

Then, just as things could have worked out, O’Connell was told by two staff on December 27 that they had been identified as close contacts. Weighing the potential implications of positive tests, the safer option seemed to be the harsher.

On a leisurely lunch break as a handful of customers finished their meals, staff began the arduous task of canceling the next 10 days of phone and email reservations – up to 1,300 covers (not to mention meetings).

“The two girls had gone home and technically we could have continued to exchange because no one else was in close contact at the time,” O’Connell said. “[But] it would come back to you. If you keep trading and everyone turns out positive you are going to look terrible. And that’s not the right thing to do; you have to keep everyone safe.

PCR tests confirmed that all other staff were Covid-free. However, staffing levels are such that even missing two can make running a busy restaurant unsustainable.

“When there are restrictions in place [and] you take out one or two staff, it really knocks you out because there are so many more procedures now than there would have been two years ago.

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