Premier Inn and CalMac hit by Omicron staff shortages

Premier Inn owner Whitbread says 3,000 staff are off work due to Omicron while shortage of 200 staff hits ferry services to Scottish islands

  • Whitbread chief executive said about 10% of the group’s employees are off work
  • And more than a fifth of staff at Caledonian MacBrayne are now self-isolating
  • Infections have impacted frontline staff as well as in ports and in customer care

Premier Inn owner Whitbread has revealed around 3,000 of its employees are off work – while a major Scottish ferry operator suffers a shortage of 200 staff amid the spread of Omicron. 

Whitbread chief executive Alison Brittain said about 10% of the group’s 30,000 employees are off work in the latest sign of the staffing crisis caused by the pandemic.

And more than a fifth of staff at Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) – which operates passenger and vehicle ferries between the Scottish mainland and islands off the countries west coast – are now self-isolating.

Nearly 200 CalMac workers, either crew on vessels or staff in ports, who are testing positive, self-isolating or waiting for PCR test results means the ferry is unable to operate at full capacity.

Infections have impacted frontline staff as well as in ports and in customer care.

The Caledonian MacBrayne vessel MV Isle of Mull leaves Oban, June 2021. More than a fifth of staff at Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) – which operates passenger and vehicle ferries between the Scottish mainland and islands off the countries west coast – are now self-isolating

CalMac introduced an essential service timetable on January 3 to cope with Covid-related staff absence and focus resources on maintaining lifeline routes, but disruption is likely to continue for some time.

Ms Brittain said Whitbread was coping with the staff absences thanks to the flexibility of its workforce and with sickness levels coinciding with its quietest trading period of the year.

She also confirmed Whitbread does not have any mandatory coronavirus vaccination policy for staff and pays 80% of salary for staff off with Covid-related sickness or who are isolating – higher than the usual statutory sick pay offered to its workers.

But the group revealed Omicron has also been knocking sales since the new variant emerged, while it cautioned its cost inflation is set to hit between 7% and 8% this year.

The group saw total UK sales drop 4.4% compared with two years ago in the six weeks to January 6, dragged lower by a 17.2% slump in food and drink revenues due to fears over the variant and restrictions on eating out in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

CalMac introduced an essential service timetable on January 3 to cope with Covid-related staff absence and focus resources on maintaining lifeline routes, but disruption is likely to continue for some time.

The latest figures show that 151 crew and 35 port staff are currently unavailable because of Covid.

This means a Covid absence rate of 20.3 per cent amongst all staff, and is in addition to a non-coronavirus absence rate of six per cent.

Maritime law sets out a legal requirement that ferries must not operate without a minimum number of crew on board. Positive cases on a vessel means that replacement crew must be sourced, which may result in sailings being cancelled if they cannot be found in time.

Robbie Drummond, CalMac Managing Director, said: ‘The absence of so much of our frontline staff is placing immense pressure on our ability to maintain a normal service.

‘We are now focusing as much of our resources as possible on keeping essential deliveries going to our communities.

‘There is a possibility that your sailing may be disrupted or cancelled, so please check the status before you start your journey to a port.

‘As this situation is constantly developing, cancellations may also take place at very short notice.

‘Help to protect passengers and crew by wearing a face covering in port offices and inside ferries, and please do not travel if you have tested positive and are still within the self-isolation period, even if you feel better.’

Lockdown measures in Germany have also taken their toll on Whitbread in the country, with hotel occupancy levels plunging 36% over six weeks.

Whitbread said it was too early to tell the impact of the Omicron hit to trade over the full year, with January and February already traditionally the quietest months for the group.

It said it still hopes Premier Inn hotel trading will recover to pre-Covid levels this year, despite the current woes.

The firm also revealed it had delayed about £20million of planned spending on marketing and refurbishments this year due to supply chain and trading challenges, especially with some materials being hard to source.

It said around £1.4 billion of its cost base is set to be affected by soaring inflation, with rising wages and energy bills among the biggest pressures facing the group.

It hiked wages by 5% in the final quarter of 2021 to help attract and retain staff and is expecting further salary rises in the spring.

But the firm said it hopes to ‘largely’ offset the cost pressures by existing cost saving measures and higher hotel room rates and expanding its estate.

Ms Brittain said: ‘UK accommodation sales remained resilient in December, albeit softening as we moved through the month and into the festive period as a result of the onset of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

‘Whilst our hotel performance was excellent, the value pub and restaurant sector in which we operate remains more challenging.’

Figures also released for the third quarter to November 25 showed more resilient trading before Omicron struck, with total like-for-like UK sales down 1%.

It said accommodation sales rose 5.5%, while food and drink sales were down 13.4% in the quarter.

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