Skyrocketing Omicron cases could leave up to 1.4million public sector workers absent.
As people prepared to welcome the New Year, nearly one in 10 NHS staff were off work, with 50,000 of them at home either sick or self-isolating.
Ministers are now scrambling to draw up emergency plans to reduce disruption to hospitals, schools, the hospitality sector and social care.
Hospitals across Lincolnshire last night declared a “critical incident” over “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages.
The United Lincolnshire Hospital Trust said it is “unable to maintain safe staffing levels” leading to “compromised care” across its sites.
Public sector leaders have been told to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to 25% absences across the 5.6million workforce, which includes 1.3m NHS staff.
The NHS is setting up Covid “surge hubs” at hospitals across England, including St George’s in Tooting, South London, as coronavirus admissions in England hit a one-year high.
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NHS England data published on Friday shows Covid admissions were up by 2,370 in England on December 29, the highest figure since January 29.
It brings the total to 12,000 across Britain.
The number of hospital workers absent due to the virus soared by 31% in a week. A total of 24,632 staff members were off on Boxing Day, compared with 18,829 a week earlier.
Sage expert Professor Stephen Reicher told the Mirror we are set to face a “real problem in January” because of festive gatherings.
The disruption will be “short term” but “severe” because of the volume of cases, he said.
Prof Reicher added: “We wouldn’t be facing such disruption if we had measures in place.”
Calling for fresh restrictions, he added: “The desire to play Santa Claus today means we have problems for tomorrow.”
Cabinet minister Steve Barclay is leading the Government’s response to manage absences in the public sector.
Mr Barclay is chairing regular meetings as Plan B restrictions will be reviewed on Wednesday.
He said: “We have been working through the Christmas period to prepare where possible for this, with all departments liaising closely with public and private sector leaders.”
The Government rejected calls to slash the Covid isolation period from seven to five days because infection rates are still high.
The UK Health Security Agency warned: “In some settings, such as hospitals, it could worsen shortages if it led to more people being infected.”
Care homes are calling for more voluntary staff or many more homes may have to cut visiting hours.
Chief executive of Care England, Professor Martin Green, said local authorities need to urgently redeploy staff to the front-line.
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He said: “The social care sector is in crisis because of a severe lack of staff. We need the Care Quality Commission and local authorities to treat this matter as urgent.”
Angela Rayner MP, Labour ’s Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “ Boris Johnson should have instructed his Ministers to start planning weeks ago, but instead he went missing for days on end.”
The latest figures show more than 1.1million people had a confirmed positive Covid test result between December 27 and January 2, a 43% increase from the previous week.
England logging an unprecedented 162,572 new cases on New Year’s Day.
Meanwhile, schoolchildren could be forced to return to online learning as mass absences hit teachers.
According to insiders, ministers fear too many teachers will be off sick for all schools to begin the term as normal and back up plans to homeschool some children may be triggered.
One Whitehall source told the Mirror: “We are just being practical. We are trying to figure out the best way to keep children in schools.
“If all of those aren’t possible, then some year groups or classes may have to go online but we are hoping this will be for literally only days.”
People are also facing a shortage of lateral flow tests because the Government is refusing kits made in the UK, with the majority of NHS tests imported from China.
Most British-made tests are being sold abroad because of delays to certification and exacting standards to meet CTDA approval, the Sunday Times reported.
The Cabinet Office has claimed that, so far, disruption caused by Omicron has been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”.
Health minister Ed Argar insisted there is “nothing new” in the latest Covid data to prompt new restrictions.
“We need cool, calm heads,” he said. “Restrictions or curbs must be the absolute last resort.
An NHS England spokesman said: “People should continue to come forward for care. The public can play their part by getting booster vaccines.”