Covid staff shortages: Natural History Museum and Edinburgh Castle among hotspots to shut

20 December 2021, 16:25 | Updated: 20 December 2021, 16:38

Staffing shortages caused by Covid have started to hit
Staffing shortages caused by Covid have started to hit. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Trains, emergency services and major tourist hotspots are being hit by staff shortages as Omicron continues to spread rapidly.

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Avanti West Coast has warned it was doing its best to run a full timetable but could cancel services at short notice, while the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said a third of fire engines are unavailable.

The Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi pleaded with former teachers to come forward if they can plug the gap in absences at schools and colleges in the New Year.

There were also warnings that one in three NHS staff in London could be off work by New Year's Eve.

Read more: 'Catastrophic' NHS staff shortages due to Omicron as variant spreads through London

Read more: Cabinet meeting as ministers 'push back' against Xmas Covid curbs suggested by scientists

The Natural History Museum said its South Kensington attraction will also shut from December 21.

It comes after reports that England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned the Cabinet that some parts of the economy faced serious staffing issues as staff isolate.

Avanti West Coast told the i: "The pandemic is unfortunately resulting in some staff shortages.

"We're doing everything we can to run our full timetable but there may be some short notice cancellations.

"Where possible, we'll contact customers in advance to let them know about cancellations but customers should also check before they travel."

It said cancelled services' tickets will still be valid on an alternative train and it had removed peak restrictions over the festive period to spread demand for travel out.

The FBU said 40 fire engines out of 142 were unavailable in London on the day and night shift on December 16, which also happened for parts of December 10, 11 and 15.

The rest of the week saw unavailability above 30, it added.

The FBU's London regional secretary, Jon Lambe, said: "The new Omicron variant is having a devastating impact on the London Fire Brigade, but this should not be affecting the brigade the way it is, with almost a third of our fire engines unavailable.

"The reason that's happening is firefighter numbers being too low, due to the devastating cuts imposed on the London Fire Brigade since 2010."

He added: "Firefighters have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic assisting other agencies. Now, firefighters themselves need assistance and to be given the safety they require – they need to be appropriately resourced and 'backed up' at all times."

Mr Zahawi asked ex-teachers who can temporarily take up roles to help ease a Covid-enforced shortage of teachers to make themselves known.

"Whether you're recently retired or trained as a teacher and have moved profession, I urge you to consider whether you might be able to spare even a day a week to bolster the numbers of supply staff available around the country," he said.

Anyone hoping to take in some culture faces disappointment, after West End shows including Lion King, Life of Pi and The Snowman scrapped some shows.

The Young Vic said "extensive" Covid disruption had led it to cancel the Best of Enemies performances until January 3.

Edinburgh Castle shut from Sunday afternoon, and may reopen from Tuesday, while in London the Natural History Museum is also shutting up for a week.

It tweeted: "The Museum at South Kensington will be closed from 21-27 December, due to an unforeseen staff shortage. We plan to reopen on Tuesday 28 December."

It confirmed this was down to Covid-19 in a subsequent tweet but confirmed the ice rink would remain open.