Our regular columnist Steve Herbert aims to deliver some Christmas cheer amid a blizzard of uncertainty & media negativity…
It was three years ago this very month that I wrote my very first Blog post for Employer News.
It was a seasonally themed contribution (see Santa isn’t what he used to be) and discussed the issue of workforce demographics and the challenges of recruitment and retention. In particular it looked at these issues through the lens of a shortage of shopping-mall Santas and their supporting cast of little helpers.
Of course much has happened since Christmas 2018 – not least a global pandemic and Brexit too – yet the candidate shortage remains a very real issue for employers in many sectors (see my more recent post The Recruitment Rollercoaster). Indeed many employers think the situation is now far worse than it was three years ago.
And the situation in Santa recruitment has not improved either. Indeed this short video on the BBC News website highlights a continuing shortage in the key Christmas Grotto sector. This has been made worse by the pandemic which (as is delicately pointed out in case little ears are present) has resulted in some 55 Santas “going back to the North Pole forever”.
And many of the remaining experienced candidates for the Santa role have understandably declined work this Christmas, given that two of the usual job requirements (older age and a heavy physical build) also represent those at higher risk from Covid-19 infections too.
Some Christmas cheer?
So Santa may have to rely on others to spread some seasonal cheer this year.
And that is much needed, not least because there has been a blizzard of renewed uncertainty and media negativity following the arrival of the Covid-19 variant, Omicron, in the UK.
So I will do my best to place a more positive emphasis on this news. Because I do genuinely believe that our starting position is far better now than it was in the run-up to Christmas last year.
For the nation faced very similar challenges this time last year as the Covid-19 variant Alpha spread rapidly across the country. The relentless rise in case numbers inevitably led to new – and lengthy – lockdowns to protect the nation.
And necessary as those restrictions certainly were, they did take their toll on us all. Mental health was damaged, physical health conditions went undiagnosed and untreated, education suffered, and business and the national economy faced fiscal and logistical challenges that hardly anyone had considered possible only a year earlier.
So it is entirely understandable if there is a collective national fear of a repetition of the experiences of last Christmas.
Yet despite these valid fears and uncertainties, the Christmas 2021 situation is potentially far better than in 2020.
This time last year the UK vaccination roll-out had only just begun, with the very first doses being administered only a couple of weeks before Christmas day. The challenge of vaccinating the rest of the nation lay ahead, and seemed like a practical and logistical mountain to climb.
Whereas this year the vast majority of the nation is double – and many even treble – vaccinated, with enhanced plans now revealed to extend booster jabs to all adults in the next two months.
Another positive is that around 92% of the UK population already has some Covid-19 antibodies in place (either via vaccination or previous exposure to the virus). And whilst those defences might not be as effective against Omicron, they should still provide at least some protection from new infections.
The good news doesn’t stop there. The major vaccine providers appear confident that they can adapt their current vaccines to combat Omicron. And by building on work already done this can be delivered in just three or four months, and once developed the manufacturing and distribution structure to get that new defence into arms is already established.
And when infection can’t be avoided, it’s comforting to know that medical professionals now have a much better understanding of how to treat severe infections, and a growing toolkit of treatments that can be deployed to reduce the chances of serious complications.
Finally – but not least – as businesses and individuals we all know so much more about Covid-19 than we did 12 months ago. After the best part of two pandemic years we are all now used to mask-wearing, social distancing, and good ventilation. Likewise we also know where risks are minimal, so outside activities and some inside meetings may well be able to continue. And many businesses are now far better placed to deliver effective remote working than they were in 2019.
Covid-Christmas yet to come
I’m certainly not trying to play-down the potential seriousness of the Omicron variant, but we would all do well to recognise the progress we have made and our much improved position from this time last year.
The reality is that COVID-19 isn’t going away this year, or probably for some years to come. Yet as time passes we shall hopefully become far better at controlling Covid-19, and as a result the virus will be less able to dictate our lives, our business, and indeed our national mood.
So perhaps it would help us all to consider our cup of Christmas cheer to be half full rather than half empty?
Stay safe, stay well, and a happy Christmas to you all. See you in ‘22.
Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing