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Could shorter isolation periods endanger more businesses?

Guy Simpson


Business owner wearing mask stood behind a closed sign

With covid still ripping through the world's population almost three years after the pandemic began, it's no wonder business owners are eager to eradicate all obstacles that put their livelihoods on the line. But is this eagerness resulting in rash decisions that could endanger them further?

Recently, business leaders have cried out for, and been granted, a reduced covid isolation period - from ten days to five days - in an attempt to remedy damaging staff shortages that have plagued workplaces since the start of the pandemic.

So many companies have gone to the wall during the last couple of years, and Covid is still claiming them. 4,627 individuals filed for insolvency in Q4 of 2021 alone, which is 18% more than the previous quarter. Company liquidations rose at the same time, with 32.9 liquidations per 10,000 cases. With the expiration of government acts that helped to support businesses, it's unsurprising to see liquidation rates increase during this period of recession. Evidently, uncertainty makes business survival a much more challenging task - and being understaffed is another huge problem.

Sick woman in bed sneezing

Sick woman in bed sneezing

Despite businesses lobbying for a reduction in the Covid isolation period, could this move actually deliver a heavier blow to the workforce? Data by the UK Health Security Agency seems to suggest so; although the infectious period is ‘shorter for the Omicron variant than the Delta variant’, a person could still be infectious for up to ten days - double the isolation period campaigned for by businesses. The rate of infection associated with Omicron provides no silver lining, as the variant is more transmissible than the Delta strain. This punishing combination could have a greater impact on workplaces - the infected could pass the virus on more easily, while also returning to work before they’re fully recovered. Richard Walker, Managing Director of Iceland Food, recently tweeted that the chain’s staff absences had risen to more than 700.

I'm sure most businesses would prefer one employee absent than their entire staff roster being forced to isolate; after all, short-staffed is better than no staff - right?

Many entrepreneurs, therefore, perceive the change in isolation policy to be a no-win scenario. Though some companies may view the new rules as the solution that will keep them standing, others are aware of the risks this move brings. Chief Policy Director of the CBI, Matthew Fell, believes ‘it would be self-defeating putting more infections to the public’.

The general public appears critical of the new isolation policy, perceiving it to be just another example of prioritising economic gains over the safety of employees. There are still more than 1500 deaths attributed to Covid every week within the UK.

While some industries will undoubtedly suffer, others will thrive, and technological advancements have made it possible for isolation employees to continue working remotely. Some companies have even transitioned to being entirely remote, which has greatly reduced their operational expenses. This isn’t feasible for all businesses, of course – such as those within the hospitality and retail sectors (although online shopping has allowed many retail companies to continue operating).

Whether the move fulfils a ‘be careful what you wish for’ prophecy or not, businesses will have no choice but to adjust to the fallout, as the changes have already come into effect. Time will tell.

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