Essential services in NI short-staffed but ‘fully functional’ despite Covid challenges

Public services, including police and fire services, as well as parts of the private sector, face a ‘difficult’ time as the post-Christmas return to work is hit by staff shortages due to Covid.

The PSNI said it had a high staff absence rate due to the Omicron variant, which has seen daily positive cases hit record highs since the start of the pandemic.

He added that the situation was not unique to him.

He said: ‘At present just over 10% of police officers and 5% of police personnel are unavailable for Covid-19 related reasons.

“However, we have planned and prepared for this.

“The service moved to emergency arrangements at the end of December to ensure sufficient capacity and capacity to maintain all of our basic service levels and keep communities across Northern Ireland safe.”

The PSNI added that it was “more important than ever” that public health advice is followed.

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Ian Campbell of Translink says timings have not been affected. Credit: Michael Cooper

Ian Campbell of Translink says timings have not been affected. Credit: Michael Cooper

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Station Commander Rod O’Hare said: ‘Like all other emergency services, we are under pressure due to this situation.

“We are currently managing them and we are fully functional and fully operational.”

It comes as the government considers how to handle potential mass absences.

He asked public sector managers to test contingency plans against the worst-case scenario of 25% staff absence as part of efforts to minimize disruption from rising Omicron cases.

Meanwhile, Translink said it had seen an increase in Covid-related absences, but services had not been affected.

The company’s Ian Campbell said: “Translink have introduced holiday timings over the Christmas period and although some increases in staff absences due to Covid have been recorded, these have not had major impact on schedules.

“However, service levels and schedules will continue to be monitored and reviewed to take into account the impact of executive regulations on passenger travel and staff availability due to Covid.”

The retail sector is struggling, but merchants are working hard to ensure their premises remain open, according to Glyn Roberts of Retail NI.

He said: “It is certainly a difficult situation throughout the supply chain.

“Obviously we have recovered this significant number of absences from staff who have had to self-isolate.

“It will be difficult the next few weeks.

“Our members are working harder than ever with stores remaining open.

“We are very clear that people should shop normally.”

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said it was too early to assess whether pubs, bars and restaurants would be further affected by staff self-isolation.

“It will be later in January before we know how it will play out,” he added.

“There are widespread disruptions, but we cannot quantify them, with smaller businesses operating with shorter hours or reduced trading windows.”

The Republic also reported a huge drop in staffing across various sectors due to Omicron, with 140,000 people self-isolating.

Michelle J. Kelley