Business leaders have called on the government to move quickly to restore confidence amid the rapid spread of Omicron and fears that a large number of workers will call in sick, creating further disruption to supply chains.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said at last night’s Downing Street press conference that a “substantial increase in Covid patients in hospital is a “nailed-on prospect”, adding: “All the things we know [about Omicron] are bad.”

On Tuesday he told cabinet ministers that the sharp rise in cases was likely to lead to mass staff absences.

Royal Mail has reported that almost double the number of its employees are absent compared to 2018, related to “issues such as Covid-related self-isolation [and] high levels of sick absence”.

The CBI, which represents 190,000 businesses employing nearly seven million people, said “ministers must provide support in lockstep with future restrictions”.

Rain Newton-Smith, chief economist of the employers’ organisation, said: “Cash is king, so helping affected firms with cashflow — by ensuring unspent local authority grants are distributed, giving firms more headroom to manage coronavirus debt repayments, and considering measures to reduce the fixed costs of businesses where demand is severely affected — should be on the table.”

The advice from Whitty to cut down on social interactions before Christmas was a blow to hospitality. Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, which has more than 1,400 members, said the press conference “took a sledgehammer” to what is usually the busiest period of the year for nightclubs, bars and casinos.

“The chancellor needs to come out of hiding and outline how he will support nightlife businesses … through the Omicron wave,” Kill said.

Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, the British Chambers of Commerce president, said: “Businesses face the two-punch combination of serious issues with staff absence and plunging consumer confidence. [They] have heard nothing from the Treasury since this round of Covid interventions arrived a week ago. They deserve better.”

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