A SUMMER WAVE of Covid-19 is causing knock-on issues around the country even if it is not causing illness as severe as previous waves.
Hospitalisations have begun to increase but a much more visible effect is the problems businesses and other services are having from increased levels of infection.
The widespread flight cancellations from airlines in both Ireland and the UK are in part due to staffing issues caused by Covid-19, with the HSE also cautioning that increased levels of infection among healthcare workers is increasing pressure on services.
In a statement, the INMO said it had observed an anecdotal increase in staff absences due to Covid and has asked that the HSE return to publishing the number of healthcare workers infected.
Under current public health guidance, healthcare workers are among the groups advised to take a Covid test if they are symptomatic but in general most people are not advised to do so.
According to the HSE, you do not need to get a Covid PCR or antigen test if you are under 55 years of age with Covid symptoms but you are otherwise healthy,or if you are aged 55 or older and you are fully boosted.
However, people with Covid symptoms are advised to self-isolate until 48 hours after their symptoms have mostly or fully gone.
This means that someone with Covid-19 symptoms may not be able to attend work if they are following advice.
Businesses may also ask staff to take Covid-19 tests before attending and of course people using antigen tests at their own discretion due to habit or symptoms may find they are positive.
With infection levels currently the highest they have been for some time, it is not difficult to picture how this could be affecting businesses across many sectors.
Barry Wallace is the managing director of Dublin restaurant business Dash Burger which was forced to close one of their two branches due to staff absences.
“Covid has played havoc with our opening hours as we all have to test and make sure we’re okay to proceed,” he told The Journal.
We’ve experienced some unsympathetic customers who gave us one-star reviews for not being open which is really hard to take. That said, we also have an amazing group of loyal customers that keep the positivity going.
“All our policies related to Covid are under Food Safety Authority of Ireland/HCCAP and we continue to prioritise our staff and customer safety and implement all correct procedures.”
The hospitality sector is perhaps particularly susceptible to Covid absences due to the requirement to attend in person and the level of contact with people.
The sector is already operating on tight staffing margins, with Fáilte Ireland recently launching a campaign to reverse staff shortages that have become apparent since the end of the Covid emergency.
Even before the recent Covid spike, Fáilte Ireland said that staffing shortages were likely to be heightened during the busy summer season.
Wallace agrees and says that two years of “stop/start lockdowns” have meant it has been difficult to recruit younger workers coming into the jobs market.
It’s been incredibly difficult to get my head around why it’s so hard to run a business post-pandemic. I’m blessed with the amazing crew I have but it’s harder to find new staff. The main issue I think is that people can no longer afford to rent in Dublin so they’ve moved on. One of my best guys had six weeks to find accommodation which of course was unsuccessful so he went to Copenhagen and got an apartment for a very manageable amount.
“There’s a lot of talk about paying people well which is something I’ve always tried to do, however being a fast casual restaurant with a small spend per head it’s really tricky to try to keep up.”
He adds: “I always paid the liveable wage and now hotel chains are paying huge rates that small businesses can’t compete with.”
Covid illness benefit
As Covid absences have begun to mount, unions have been increasingly vocal in both encouraging businesses to accommodate sick staff members as well as encouraging employees to apply for social welfare assistance if required.
If a worker is told to self-isolate by a doctor or diagnosed with Covid-19, they are entitled to apply for the €350 per week enhanced Illness Benefit scheme.
The scheme was introduced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and it had been due to lapse this week but it has now been extended until the end of September.
Unions are however encouraging employers to continue to pay employees who are forced out of work due to Covid and have also said that Covid-related absences should not be counted as sick days.
Jonathan Hogan, assistant general secretary of trade union Mandate — which represents 40,000 workers in the retail, pub and administrative sectors — said workers should be paid sick pay by their employers instead of requiring them to apply for social welfare.
They have to isolate, there’s nothing they can do, they’re low-paid workers and if their employer is saying, ‘we know you have to stay home but we’re not paying’, that’s absolutely unacceptable.
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“Then they have to apply for social welfare support that might get two or three weeks later at that stage they may have a rent arrears or mortgage arrears and people are living from day to day.”
Speaking about the retail sector, Hogan adds that safety should be paramount and that “best practice protocols” that existed earlier in the pandemic should remain in place.
“We already called for mask-wearing in retail, we called for that when it was taken away some time ago. There is a talk again again of bringing in mask-wearing in highly populated places like retailers. It comes as no surprise to us that the numbers are high again and the facilitation of mask-wearing in those places would be helpful.”
This week, the government agreed to prepare draft legislation that would allow a mask-mandate to be introduced in specific settings if deemed necessary. No such plans are being considered at present, however.
In a statement to The Journal, an INMO spokesperson said that Covid testing on arrival into hospital needed to be reintroduced “as a matter of urgency”.
“Nurses and patients are working and being treated in overcrowded, not very well-ventilated environments, mitigating the risks as much as possible will go a long way. We are in the middle of yet another wave, it makes no sense that patients are not tested upon arrival to our hospitals,” they said.