Brits stock up on toilet roll and paracetamol as Covid work absences surge

Supermarkets struggle with toilet roll shortages as people are confined to their houses by covid.
Supermarkets struggle with toilet roll shortages as people are confined to their houses by covid. Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

People in the UK stocked up on toilet rolls and paracetamol last week as work absences surged due to rising cases of COVID-19 across the country.

According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), paracetamol was out of stock at 8% of stores surveyed by market researchers Kantar between 7 and 10 January, and running low at a further 21% of sites surveyed.

It added that Ibuprofen was either low, or out of stock, at a fifth of stores, with toilet rolls, fresh fish, frozen chips, and fresh pork also high on the shortages list.

It came as employee absence rates rose sharply at the end of December thanks to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Around 3% of Britain's workforce were estimated to be on sick leave or not working because of coronavirus symptoms, self-isolation or quarantine. This was the highest figure since comparable estimates began in June 2020.

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High absence rates hit salons the hardest, as sickness rates at hairdressers and beauty businesses, which come under “other services industry”, reporting the highest absence levels of 7%.

Just over one-fifth (21%) of businesses reported increased cancellations from customers, the ONS said.

More hospitality firms in the sector were also struggling with cash flow, given the sharply lower takings before Christmas. More than half (54%) of firms in the accommodation and food services industry said they had less than three months of cash reserves, up from 44% in early December.

“It shows that workers in face-to-face roles have been particularly exposed to the new variant, with its highly infectious properties,” Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said.

“There’s been an exodus of shoppers from the high street as sickness rates have intensified, with footfall falling 11% compared to the same week in 2019. It seems people have been keen to avoid cramped stores and car parks, with footfall at retail parks holding up better, but still down 3% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“A Christmas splurge combined with the intensifying income squeeze may be forcing more consumers to tighten their belts, and delay unnecessary shopping trips.”

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