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Operators played down fears that the tsunami of Omicron infections hitting the UK will combine with driver shortages to affect last-minute Christmas deliveries.

With government modelling predicting up to 400,000 infections a day, rising to one million by the peak this winter, the UK economy is bracing for a wave of worker absences.

However, a straw poll of operators around the country revealed that most consider they are prepared for the outbreak.

Graham Leitch, group MD at Palletline, told MT: “From the start of the Covid pandemic in early 2020, we have made every effort to ensure the wellbeing of our employees and our members, whilst minimising disruption.

“Many of the measures introduced at the time have either remained in place or been reinstated including mask wearing, temperature checking, minimal people on site and working from home where possible.

“Canteens too have been segregated with reduced capacity and breaks staggered and monitored to ensure social distancing.

“Lateral flow testing is available to staff and the impact on our membership is being monitored on a weekly basis.

“As yet Palletline has seen a minimal impact with just 1% of the network-wide workforce affected and it is still very much business as usual, however we are working closely with the network to ensure our service levels remain uninterrupted.”

However, Leitch warned that the network does expect numbers to rise in the New Year, and will continue to review its volume management measures and monitor the situation to ensure service levels are not affected.

Like Palletline, Meachers Global Logistics has had Covid-19 strategies in place for some time which are continuing to serve it well. However chairman Bob Terris said the company had seen Covid-19 impact on the flow of agency drivers.

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He explained: “We have not had too many problems with workers isolating but it has affected the availability of drivers from agencies.

“However, that seems to have eased over the past two weeks as the agencies are ringing us and offering drivers. I think the driver situation will improve after the New Year.”

He added: “Obviously there is still a risk of further restrictions due to Covid-19 but we are confident that we can handle this if required.”

Freightlink Europe director Lesley O’Brien said her company has also witnessed a squeeze on agency drivers. She said: “Availability and quality of agency drivers has been a major issue. However, I don’t think this can be solely attributed to Covid-19. There are a multitude of issues, which have impacted on driver availability.

She added: “I very much hope that the driver shortage will become less critical in January, however this should and must not ease the pressure on government and industry to improve facilities and increase incentives for a new generation of HGV drivers to enter the industry.

“We need the UK public to continue to appreciate and recognise our drivers as key workers, essential to our economy.”

Keiran Smith, chief executive of driver agency Driver Require said that, so far, his agency has not suffered from absences brought on by the Omicron surge. However, he warned: “Not at the moment – but it will be an issue. We are at the early stage of the Omicron wave which is predicted to peak towards the middle of January through to the middle of February, so we are four weeks away from that. But our drivers will be in the firing line, no question.”

Youngs Transport and Logistics director Rob Hollyman said the company had struggled last week with Covid-19 related absences. He told MT: “The problem hasn’t been so much with the drivers as they are isolated to some extent. However it did affect our warehousing and office staff last week, which was the absolute peak week, so it was fairly horrendous.

“We had 15 off sick out of 80 at our Purfleet depot. Our Warrington depot was not hit quite so badly, where we had three or four staff off out of 12, but it has been a struggle, although we are in a much better position this week.

“All our staff have been double and triple jabbed which has also made some difference - we didn’t have any cases of Covid until this latest wave but this latest variant seems much more infectious.”