'ROBUST contingency plans" must be put in place for essential public services as Omicron case rates rocket, bosses have been told. 

Absence levels as high as 25% have been mooted in light of high infection rates over the festive period.

There were a record 162,572 new cases in England on Saturday. Figures for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were not updated that day.

The Cabinet Office says Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is chairing regular meetings with ministers to work out how the highly-transmissible variant is impacting supply chains and workforces. Its guidance is aimed at the areas reserved to Westminster.

Public sector leaders have been asked to prepare for "worst-case scenario" sickness and self-isolation rates of 10%, 20% and 25%.

The Cabinet Office says disruption caused by the Omicron variant has been controlled in "most parts of the public sector" so far. But Barclay says workforces "will face disruption in the coming weeks, particularly from higher than normal staff absence".

The National:

Speaking on Times Radio, Ed Argar (above), Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, said: "What you're talking about there is government doing the responsible and sensible thing of preparing for a range of contingencies, making sure that it considers all possible eventualities, even those that are at the very high end of the scale."

On the likelihood of such high rates of absence, Argar went on: "We model a range of scenarios up to things we think are highly unlikely, but you still do it because that's what a responsible government does in preparing for all eventualities."

While people who test positive in Scotland must isolate for 10 days, that figure is just seven in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where two negative lateral flow results taken 24-hours apart and no earlier than day six are needed to end self-isolation. 

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says cutting that to five days would be "counterproductive" and could exacerbate staffing shortages if it leads to more infections.

Sir Frank Atherton, the chief medical officer for Wales, has suggested that "anybody who has a cold" should "stay home, get better" to curb the spread of the virus.

The National:

Dave Penman (above), the general secretary of the FDA trade union which represents professionals and managers in public service, said: "The lessons learned from the first lockdown of the pandemic have helped the civil service to develop a flexible working model that, it many cases, enables it to work seamlessly between home and office.

"This innovation, together with continued investment to support flexible working, will help offset some of the impact of those who have to isolate but are still well enough to work.

"No public service can continue to operate at the same level with a 25% reduction in staffing. However, the flexibility that's been hard-wired into working practices will help offset some of the impact, something to be celebrated, rather than continually criticised by ministers."