Contingency plans are being drawn up over fears that a quarter of public sector workers may be absent due to Omicron’s spate of COVID infections.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked ministers to test preparations for a possible worst-case scenario, as the daily coronavirus count continues to rise to record highs.
All departments are also renewing their efforts to ensure that key workers receive their COVID booster injections to increase protection against the Omicron variant.
It follows that there are fears that large numbers of Britons will be forced into self-isolation in the first weeks of 2022, causing chaos in public services, transport networks and putting additional pressure on NHS workforce.
Some rail services in January have already been canceled or emergency timetables introduced, amid skyrocketing staff illnesses.
Across England, 24,632 NHS staff in hospital trusts were absent for COVID reasons on Boxing Day, up 31% from the 18,829 a week earlier and nearly double the number of number at the beginning of December (12,508).
The total includes staff who either had the coronavirus or needed to self-isolate.
Steve Barclay, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, chairs regular meetings with other ministers to closely monitor Omicron’s impact on the workforce and supply chains, as well as on schools ahead of return students in class after the Christmas holidays.
The Cabinet Office said public sector leaders have been asked to test the plans against the worst-case workforce absences of 10%, 20% and 25%.
Mr Barclay said: “As people return to work after the Christmas holidays, Omicron’s high levels of transmissibility mean businesses and utilities will face disruption in the coming weeks, particularly in due to a higher than normal staff absence.
“We have been working throughout the Christmas season to prepare for it as much as possible, with all departments liaising closely with leaders in the public and private sectors who are best placed to manage their workforce operationally.
“The best way to fight Omicron is to get Boosted and I encourage everyone who is eligible to get Boosted now.”
A Cabinet Office-based task force of officials are working on contingency planning, with regular data being used to identify any potential disruption at an early stage.
Last month the government urged schools to ask former teachers to temporarily return to class to help alleviate staff shortages.
In a bid to prevent a further ‘pingemia’ of millions of Britons being forced into self-isolation, the government has introduced daily testing to avoid the widespread need for self-isolation where people do not test positive.
And the isolation period for those infected has been reduced from 10 days to seven days with two negative tests.
Efforts have also been made to strengthen the workforce in the NHS and social service sectors, as well as to increase the number of heavy truck drivers.
Labor has accused the government of leaving contingency planning “at the very last moment” in the face of the Omicron wave of COVID cases.
Angela Rayner, deputy party leader, said: “The Prime Minister’s lack of leadership means his government has hesitated and delayed, leaving contingency planning at the very last moment.
“Boris Johnson should have asked his ministers to start planning weeks ago, but instead he’s been missing for days.
“With a record number of COVID infections, the Prime Minister must immediately bring the pressures on the workforce under control, keep essential services on the move, keep schools open and keep people safe. “