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Omicron variant: how can businesses weather the storm?

Cases of COVID in the UK have leapt by 65,000 in past week as concerns over the Omicron variant grow.

Yesterday (December 15) the prime minister called an emergency Cobra meeting between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The same day, despite a large Conservative rebellion, it became mandatory in England to show a COVID Pass - the digital certificate of vaccination, immunity, or a negative test - at large venues such as nightclubs and stadiums.

Businesses in public-facing sectors such as healthcare, education, transport, and hospitality and retail have also been warned to expect mass absences.

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For businesses seeking to minimise Omicron’s effect on staff, Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer at hotel operator The Dorchester Collection, advised taking up tried and tested methods.

“The next wave has been building for a while now, so if you have not already, dust off past plans, contingencies, and update those risk assessments for how you operate your business,” he told HR Magazine.

“Having to plan for staff shortages is a reality, so you may need to adjust your business models or adapt service, while staying true to your company vision.”

“This is once again a time to over-communicate your procedures to your teams if they get pinged or contract COVID-19.”

Sharon Benson, HR director at care home provider Sunrise Senior Living, said that their communications strategy has been a vital part of their response to the crisis.

Speaking to HR magazine she said: “You’ve got to be really clear on what you want to convey.”

Some of the messaging at the care home provider has including encouraging workers to get vaccinated.

Benson added: “If you’re in a sector like retail, hospitality, the care sector or NHS, where you have to physically go to work, what can you do to mitigate the key workers picking it up?

"Masks, hygiene, social distancing, and even increasing sick pay to encourage people not to come in while ill are all important parts of the puzzle, she said.

"But full vaccination was the best single way to mitigate the virus’ impact. When we looked at homes that vaccinated from the early days, because their local authorities were quick to mobilise, we saw the infection rates plummet."

On Sunday (December 12), the Prime Minister announced an emergency acceleration of the booster programme, to total a million shots every day until the end of the month.

Benson added: “Educate, inform, and consider your communications channels. A large number of the [care sector] workforce may not have company emails and laptops

“You’ve just got to be a bit more creative with the communication of those messages. They’re a hard to reach audience, and you can’t rely on cascade [communication].”

Whatever combination of measures you take, Pirri urged, HR must keep a spirit of generosity towards the employees and clients keeping business afloat.

He said: “Be thankful for all your employees are giving, and for the loyalty of your customers during these uncertain times.  

“You have to have a long-term mind-set to weather the storm when it is at its strongest in order to maximise when in calmer times.”

Questions have been raised about whether government will reintroduce financial support for businesses struggling to stay open, due to staff and customer shortages.

The Resolution Foundation, among others, has called for a limited reintroduction of the furlough scheme.

In a statement, the think tank said: “Whatever the imminent cause of that economic pain, the right policy answer is to provide targeted economic support.

“Reviving a more limited version of the furlough scheme is the easiest way to do that and protect household living standards.”