It is the enforced absence through isolation that will in my view create the greatest challenges over the next eight weeks, writes David Read, founder and chairman of Prestige Purchasing

It has emerged this week that government scientists expect Britain will have between 300,000 and 400,000 new Omicron infections per day by the end of this week. Tuesday’s daily infection number was 59,610, but there is a lag between reported and actual numbers caused by the symptom emergence, testing and results, and we are told that the rise in cases is now so sharp that a huge delta has appeared between reported and actual.

The situation is particularly concerning in London, where the virus is said to be out of control and ripping through the population much faster than in other parts of the country. (London is also the least vaccinated area of England.)

Anecdotally, more people seem to have Covid in the capital right now than at any other point in the pandemic. A source within the Playbook daily newsfeed, who has seen the government’s modelling for how Omicron is set to surge over the coming days, says the graph simply shows a line going almost straight up beyond the million cases per day mark.

The Times’ Chris Smyth and Ademola Bello have this week run the numbers and (using the published official NHS case statistics) predict that one million people will be isolating on Christmas Day. Using the UK Health Security Agency’s projection of the current rate of infection, it would instead mean some four million people will catch Covid in the days leading up to Christmas, leading to four times as many people with Covid compared with last year.

Leaving aside concerns about the ability of the NHS to cope (last winter’s wave saw a peak of 3,768 hospital admissions in a single day, versus a current worst case prediction of more than 6,000), the impact upon our hospitality operations and the supply chains that serve us are likely to come under severe pressure from next week onwards.

I have heard it said that data from South Africa shows Omicron is less severe than other Covid strains. For example, the South African Medical Research Council on Tuesday found Omicron does cause milder symptoms, and that two Pfizer jabs are 70% effective against hospitalisation.

Many of our UK government scientists however are warning that it would be wrong to conclude that Omicron is milder. One points to a Guardian report suggesting that South Africa is experiencing lower hospitalisations because of three massive previous waves of infection in the country, and therefore it is not comparable with the likely impact on Britain or other countries.

The World Health Organisation’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was “wrong for people to consider Omicron as mild.” The Times says Whitty gave a similar conclusion to ministers on Tuesday, warning them not to draw comfort from South Africa.

For our operations, and our supply chains, the main concern is not the severity of the disease (and the restrictions put in place to contain it) – it is the enforced absence through isolation that will, in my view, create the greatest challenges.

Our traditional supply chains rely on pickers and drivers being available to work, and our own operations need chefs and waiters. If the projections above were to prove correct then between 10% and 15% of the UK’s working population may be self-isolating later this month. And of course, these numbers will not be evenly spread – they will rise proportionately in workplaces with enhanced social contact and increase in geographies (such as London) where the outbreak is already more intense.

In the face of this kind of infection rate we may yet see operators choosing to close, not because of government restrictions (which the government is reluctant to do anyway), but because consumer demand falls even further and staffing and stocking challenges prove insurmountable.

Those that decide to push on would be well-advised to maintain good stocks of food and drink as supplier drivers and pickers will likely be in short supply. Food manufacturers and processors will not be immune to these issues, so be prepared for sudden and unexpected product shortages as production runs are disrupted because of lack of staff and materials. And outbound deliveries to customers may also be impacted by there not being enough riders/drivers to meet a higher than usual demand.

Many hospitality operators are frustrated by the fact that staff going into self-isolation currently seem overwhelmingly to have mild symptoms – often little more than a heavy cold. As this new variant plays out it may well be possible for the government to adjust the current rules on self-isolation to free up the working economy and restore consumer confidence.

Indeed, with 30m booster jabs complete, the vaccine roll-out being accelerated, and cases rising sharply we may reach a point where we see a sharp fall in new cases much faster than in previous waves. But until then it feels unlikely that we will see any material change in the self-isolation rules.

A tricky month or two will now unfold before us. We await the response of the Chancellor with interest.