Covid UK: Calls for FREE or cheap Covid lateral flow tests to get Britain back to work

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Bosses have demanded free or cheap Covid lateral flow tests to get Britain back to work, as a recent surge in virus cases causes havoc with staff sickness disrupting entire supply chains. 

The British Chambers of Commerce says up to 75% of companies reported at least one staff member off sick with coronavirus in the last four weeks, with ONS figures showing around one in six bosses paying sick pay to staff to self-isolate when they test positive.

Ministers have refused to bring back free tests after axing them under Boris Johnson’s ‘Living With Covid’ strategy, insisting that the ‘£2billion-a-month’ swabbing regime was ‘simply unsustainable’.

People now have to purchase the swabs from most High Street chemists, where they are available for about £2 each – and a pack of five setting Britons back just under £10. 

But this, plus a gradual end to WFH, appears to have caused another surge in Covid cases and staff sickness.  

Though UK Health Security Agency figures show that cases have recently plateaued and are now falling, the ONS estimates 3.7million people were carrying the virus on any given day in the week ending April 9 – a near 9% fall on the record 4.1million the previous week.    

A member of the NHS Test and Trace collects a sample from a member of the public at the drive-thru Covid-19 testing site on Hawkwood Road in Bournemouth, February 5, 2022

A member of the NHS Test and Trace collects a sample from a member of the public at the drive-thru Covid-19 testing site on Hawkwood Road in Bournemouth, February 5, 2022

The Office for National Statistics' ( ONS ) weekly surveillance report estimates 3.7million people in England were carrying the virus on any given day in the week ending April 9

The Office for National Statistics’ ( ONS ) weekly surveillance report estimates 3.7million people in England were carrying the virus on any given day in the week ending April 9

Nine out of ten employees are pushing to WFH in a bid to combat soaring fuel prices amid cost-of-living crisis, new research reveals 

Many employees are trying to persuade their managers to allow them to work from home more because of rising fuel prices, new research suggests.

A survey of almost 3,000 workers found that nine in 10 are pushing for more remote working amid the cost-of-living crisis.

Recruiter Randstad said its findings follow huge increases in the cost of petrol and diesel in recent months.

Chief executive Victoria Short said the Chancellor’s recent announcement of a cut to fuel duty has failed to bring costs down.

‘Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the International Energy Agency recommended its members introduce emergency measures to restrain demand, including working from home. Well, workers here are ahead of the game.

‘The rise in fuel prices is a much bigger blow to workers in Northern Ireland and Wales than to those in London.

‘Londoners have public transport options, subsidised by the British taxpayer, that aren’t available in other parts of the country.

‘For people who have to drive, being hit by massive fuel bills to travel to work, while seemingly subsidising London’s transport infrastructure must feel pretty painful.

‘On top of that, train passengers have just suffered one of the worst periods of cancellations ever due to staff shortages – so that’s not exactly a reliable option either.

‘If the government wants to encourage people back to the office and open up city centres, it needs to look at cutting VAT on petrol and diesel.’

The Government said it recognised the impact of rising costs and had given firms £400 billion in Covid support.

But Jane Gratton of the BCC said Covid, paired with rising costs, meant this was a ‘precarious time’ for business.

The organisation, which which represents tens of thousands of British businesses, has said that free or lower cost testing is necessary to ensure that both staff and customers are kept safe.  

Meanwhile the Federation of Small Businesses says one in seven businesses they represent cannot trade as they should at the moment, particularly in hard-hit hospitality settings, 

Legal expert Laura Kearsley said: ‘Most businesses were glad to see the back of formal regulations but in a way they were a comfort blanket with someone making the decision for you. 

‘Now businesses have more discretion, but that brings a headache in itself for them.’ 

Sanjay Aggarwal, who runs Spice Kitchen on the outskirts of Liverpool, said that they have had to shut down production in the warehouse for two weeks at a time recently due to rising cases. 

The company, which blends and packages ingredients for gifts and subscription deliveries, has 15 staff split between the office, and others blending and bagging spices on the shop floor.

He told the BBC: ‘The guidance is not totally clear and it’s tricky for businesses, having to make up their own rules. It now comes down to leadership teams like myself to come up with the right requirements for staff.’ 

A Government spokesperson said: ‘Employers still have a duty of care to their staff, so they should take steps to prevent infection in the workplace, meaning if someone is displaying Covid-19 symptoms or has tested positive, they should be considered sick and stay at home to avoid contact with others.

‘We recognise the impact rising costs will have on businesses of all sizes and we have backed businesses throughout the pandemic with an unprecedented package of support including VAT cuts, business rates holidays and government backed loans worth around £400billion.’

NHS leaders and experts have been calling for the return of Covid curbs including masks and outdoor mixing.

Daily data shows 27,283 cases were logged in England on Thursday, the most up to date figures, while 4,196 were detected in Scotland, 338 in Wales and 791 in Northern Ireland.

However, experts warn the daily figures are now almost meaningless because they rely entirely on people coming forward for tests. MPs have called for the end of the constant updates.

And there were 1,958 admissions across the UK on Sunday, down 13.9 per cent from the 2,274 people who sought NHS care seven days earlier.

Some 19,028 infected patients were in hospital beds yesterday morning, down from 20,498 a week ago.

Official figures suggest around half of the tally are so-called incidental admissions, meaning they are primarily in hospital for another reason.

Daily deaths continued to creep upwards, with an average of 283 per day logged in the last week.

Commuters arrive at London Bridge station, in central London, February 14, 2022

Commuters arrive at London Bridge station, in central London, February 14, 2022

Just two days a week in the office for civil servants: Our investigation reveals thousands of mandarins are allowed to WFH indefinitely 

Tens of thousands of civil servants are being allowed to carry on working from home indefinitely.

Despite being urged by ministers to get back to the office for the sake of the economy, mandarins have quietly instituted permanent ‘hybrid working’.

A Daily Mail investigation found that staff are required to spend as little as 40 per cent of their working week in the office.

Public sector offices around the country are still virtually empty, with only a handful of employees clocking in – months after lockdown restrictions were axed. 

The Mail’s audit found that on a typical Monday in the middle of March, many publicly-funded bodies had less than 10 per cent of their staff in work. Some had under 5 per cent – and one had none at all.

But the figure encompasses all people dying ‘with’ the virus rather than just those whose death was caused by it. This means large numbers could be so-called ‘incidentals’ due to the virus’s high prevalence.

It comes as the ONS survey suggests virus prevalence fell in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in England, and flattened off in Wales, in a sign that the outbreak is peaking across the UK.

In Wales, an estimated 231,900 people had the virus (the equivalent of one in 13), while in Northern Ireland it was 95,900 (one in 19). The ONS also estimated that 314,800 Scots likely had the disease in the same time period (one in 17).

The ONS report found a total of 3,773,800 people in England had the virus between April 3 to April 9, down 8.8 per cent from 4,141,600 in the week ending April 2.

Broken down, rates are falling or flattening in every region of England – except the North East where they are still rising.

The percentage of people testing positive has decreased in all age groups except those in school Year 7 to school Year 11 and those aged 70 years and over, for which the trend was uncertain.

For Wales, rates have generally increased for those aged around 40 years and over while the trend is uncertain among younger adults and children.

In Northern Ireland, they have been falling in recent weeks for younger adults and children, while the trend is uncertain for older adults. In Scotland, rates have generally decreased among all ages in recent weeks.

The NHS Confederation warned earlier this week that messaging encouraging masks in crowded places and limits on meeting others indoors were needed to fight the virus, claiming this Easter would be ‘as bad as any winter’ for hospitals.

Its renewed calls for onerous public health measures were based on high levels of Covid admissions in hospitals – although these are also now falling without any non-pharmaceutical interventions.

UK-wide Covid hospital admissions appear to be falling, too. Government dashboard data shows the daily figure fell for the fourth day in a row on Saturday, the most recent date with data.

Get your staff back to the office! Jacob Rees-Mogg tells Cabinet to stop civil servants working from home… as new figures reveal some departments are just a QUARTER full

Jacob Rees-Mogg has ordered Cabinet ministers to end Whitehall’s work from home culture as official figures revealed how few staff are back in the office.

Two years on from the start of the Covid pandemic, many government departments are not even at half their capacity.

Several key ministries – including the Foreign Office and Department for Education – had on average less than a third of staff in the office over the first week in April, data shows. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg has written a letter to the Secretaries of State saying that 'significant progress’ is needed to get offices back to full capacity

Jacob Rees-Mogg has written a letter to the Secretaries of State saying that ‘significant progress’ is needed to get offices back to full capacity

Now, in a letter to the Secretaries of State, Mr Rees-Mogg, the minister for government efficiency, said ‘significant progress’ was needed to get offices back to full capacity.

Critics of home working claim it makes staff less productive and creative, damages career prospects and harms the economies of town centres.

While the number of staff at their desks in Whitehall has increased in recent weeks, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels despite the end of Covid curbs. 

The Department for Education had just 25 per cent of staff in the office in the week beginning April 4 – although officials said the school holidays meant it was not representative.

While the number of staff at their desks in Whitehall has increased in recent weeks, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels despite the end of Covid curbs

 While the number of staff at their desks in Whitehall has increased in recent weeks, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels despite the end of Covid curbs

Despite multiple pressures on the Home Office, including migrant crossings and processing visas for Ukrainian refugees, on average only 42 per cent of staff were at their workplace.

The Foreign Office, a key department responding to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, saw just 31 per cent of staff in its King Charles Street building that week.

And despite the cost of living crisis, the Department for Work and Pensions had just 27 per cent of its civil servants at their desks.

Astonishingly, the figures could overestimate the numbers in the office as some departments recorded the figures by asking security staff to click people in – and then loosely adjusted the figures to account for lunch breaks. 

Other departments used data from pass readers. The figures suggest that a plea issued by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay three months ago for departments to return to full occupancy fell on deaf ears.

In his letter to Cabinet ministers, Mr Rees-Mogg wrote: ‘We must continue to accelerate the return of civil servants to office buildings to realise the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working and the wider benefits for the economy. 

‘To deliver this, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I urge you to issue a clear message to civil servants in your department to ensure a rapid return to the office.’ He also said the figures ‘show we have significant progress to make’.

Tory MPs urged Boris Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to ‘bang the desk’ to get civil servants back into Whitehall.

Staying put: Many are still avoiding the office in favour of their home working set-up

Staying put: Many are still avoiding the office in favour of their home working set-up

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, of the 1922 Committee, said: ‘There are severe signs of the civil service not being as effective as it should be – and I think that’s because for the bulk of the period they need to be back at work.’

But the FDA civil service union accused Mr Rees-Mogg of ‘micro-managing’. It added: ‘Ministers should be concerned with what is being delivered by civil servants, not where their desk is.’

A government spokesman said: ‘Ministers have been clear that departments should make maximum use of office space and progress is being monitored.’

On Saturday, the Daily Mail revealed that departments allowed staff to work in the office for only two days a week.

When civil servants were sent home in the first lockdown, it led to ‘backlog Britain’ as motorists, travellers and new parents were left waiting months for vital documents that could not be processed remotely.

One mandarin, Sarah Healey, admitted she enjoyed being at home so she could ride her Peloton exercise bike.

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