Grocers are extending temporary staff contracts and prioritising food and online deliveries over other areas of their business as the Omicron coronavirus surge doubles staff absences.

Supermarkets including Asda, the Co-op, Waitrose and Tesco are all currently experiencing staff absences running at around 5% or 6%, double the staff absences usual for this time of the year. 

One source at a grocer said that while the absences were higher than expected for this time of the year, the situation was manageable from an operations standpoint and nowhere near as bad as during the summer’s “pingdemic”. 

In a bid to ease problems with staff absences, Retail Week understands that grocers are keeping on temporary staff bought in over Christmas and are prioritising staffing their food arms and fulfilling online deliveries over general merchandise and other categories.

Another grocery source said that while his retailer was managing with an increase in absences, there were bigger stresses being placed on suppliers and food manufacturers further down the supply chain, which could, in turn, lead to issues with availability on supermarket shelves.  

It’s not just grocers that are battling with mounting staff absences. Retail Week understands that Pret a Manger staff absences are currently runing at around 4% - the highest it has been at any point during the pandemic.

Rising staff absences, combined with the return of many office staff to working from home, has led to the closure of some stores. A source close to the food-on-the-go specialist said Pret had kept store closures down by moving staff to different locations. 

It comes after Iceland managing director Richard Walker yesterday called for Covid isolation rules to be scrapped and infected staff to be allowed back into the workplace after seeing an “exponential” rise in coronavirus cases amongst staff. 

Speaking on BBC Radio Five Live, he said: “An awful lot of our colleagues are being forced into this isolation period.

“They want to get back to work and earn money, and if we could cut the isolation period – or indeed, get rid of it as I think we eventually might have to come to – because we’ve got to learn to live alongside this virus.”

Walker said that 3,300 Iceland workers are currently off sick – a rise of 70% week on week – and said that the isolation rules needed to change for fully vaccinated employees. 

“I think we need to design policies that are fit for business and society and those who are vaccinated, as opposed to the unvaccinated tail wagging the triple-vaccinated dog.”

The British Retail Consortium said that absence rates across the sector were running at between 3% and 7% and that retailers with younger staff have higher absence rates.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: “Staff absences continue to rise in line with rising Covid cases, however, the overall situation remains manageable throughout the supply chain.

“Retailers are monitoring the situation closely – clearly, continued rising absence rates due to self-isolation will get increasingly difficult to sustain.”

The UK Health Security Agency today unveiled plans to ease Covid testing rules for people without symptoms, saying they will no longer need to confirm a positive lateral flow test with a PCR from January 11.