Absenteeism Set to Soar This Winter as Britain Heads Back to Work

Experts in the field of microbiology and infection control are predicting there will be higher-than-usual rates of workplace absenteeism in 2021, not just down to coronavirus. As the Government aims to roll out an aggressive flu vaccination programme to support the coronavirus vaccine programme, a leading microbiologist has warned that flu vaccines could be ineffective due to the low rates of flu transmission in 2020.   

Dr D. L. Webber, a microbiologist with over 50 years’ experience, believes flu could take hold in unprecedented levels this winter, driven not just by lifting restrictions but a lack of information about prevalent influenza variants. The latter could mean the Government’s flu vaccination programme announced this week, which is offering 35 million doses, could be largely ineffective.  

Seasonal rises in colds, influenza and other respiratory viruses, including rising coronavirus cases mean it’s likely that struggling businesses will see very high levels of employee absence during the winter months.  

“It is inevitable that when people begin to mix as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, that there will be an increase in people catching and spreading other respiratory viral infections associated with Influenza A + B, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), Metapneumovirus, Rhinovirus, Parainfluenza, and Adenovirus,” begins Dr Webber. 

“As the range of responses intended to fight the COVID-19 pandemic — from lockdowns to mask wearing, social distancing and reduced international travel — are relaxed, respiratory viral infections (including COVID-19) will undoubtedly increase. These responses have had a huge impact on the spread of other common respiratory illnesses too.” 

Dr Webber continues: “The main effect of coronavirus restrictions on other airborne viruses is the reduction in influenza. Heading into the back of the year, I would expect a significant rise in flu cases driven by international travel, which may lead to potentially severe seasonal epidemics.  

“The main reason for this is because low transmission rates last flu season mean we have a lack of information on which flu variants to include in any vaccine programme. Furthermore, a low-flu season might kill off less-common variants of influenza, making the choice of strains for future vaccines more difficult. We also do not know if the COVID-19 vaccines confer any immunity to similar human coronaviruses associated with respiratory infections (although the reverse has been suggested). 

“Pair this with the usual seasonal rise in infection rates of common colds, I would expect a bigger than average rise in absenteeism.”  

Steve Whittall, Group Research and Development Director at Airdri, suppliers of SteraSpace air sanitisation systems, is an expert in the field of infection control. He added: 

“There’s an expectation that once restrictions are lifted, we will all go back to ‘business as usual’, but infection control is something more businesses are (and should be) looking into, especially given that coronavirus rates are rising. Coronavirus has shifted employee wellness up the priority list; we’ve seen that reflected in the rise in enquiries for our air sanitisation units.  

“Personally, I think there has been a shift in consciousness too. Where previously there was the expectation that we should just ‘grin and bear it’ if we had a minor cold or flu, bosses have been forced to introduce proper procedures around attending work when feeling unwell. And if predictions are true, that’s going to be really important as we head into winter.” 

Steve continued: “When looking to reduce absenteeism in the workplace, it’s helpful to consider why illnesses like colds and flu tend to spike in winter. The most obvious is that when it gets colder people spend more time indoors, which has three effects: 

“Crowded spaces promote the spread of virus-laden droplets/aerosols. 

“Air conditioning/central heating reduces humidity in the air, increasing the survival of enveloped viruses such as influenza and coronaviruses. Reduced humidity can also dry out nasal passages making them more vulnerable to infection by respiratory viruses.  

“Reduced ventilation due to closing windows and HVAC systems operating with decreased air intake (to keep heating costs low) lessen dilution of aerosols and contribute to the spread of respiratory viruses in domestic and office environments. 

“Enveloped viruses survive longer under winter conditions as the low temperatures help to protect the structural integrity of the envelope, guarding the virus. 

Steve continued: “A solution would be the installation of air sanitisation units such as the SteraSpace range from Airdri, which effectively remove viruses, bacteria, mould, fungi and odours by combining three technologies to emit a stream of disinfecting plasma into the air. When used in an office environment and independently tested, the units were found to reduce bacteria and pathogens by 78%.”