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- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
A fire station was left without any available firefighters over Christmas amid a surge in Omicron cases that is impacting life-saving public services, unions have claimed.
The UK reported its highest ever number of COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, with 218,724 recorded and 48 deaths.
The situation has become so acute it is thought at least a million people are believed to be self-isolating at the moment - many of whom are nurses, teachers, firefighters and other critical workers.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has said acute shortages have already been reported in London, the epicentre of the variant's outbreak in the UK, as the issue becomes more widespread.
And, on Wednesday, union officials said Gosport fire station in Hampshire had staff shortages so severe it had no rostered firefighters on the evening of 28 December, meaning firefighters from other stations had to be drafted in to cover.
Mark Chapman, the Fire Brigades Union's (FBU) regional secretary for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, said services are now down to their "bare bones".
“The service is at an absolutely threadbare level of cover. We even had one fire station essentially left without any firefighters, having to borrow firefighters from another station," he said.
"As Omicron takes grip across the country that’s something we’ll continue to see in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and more widely.
"That’s because the government has cut the fire and rescue service to its bare bones, with Hampshire losing almost one in five of its firefighters since 2010, and the Isle of Wight losing more than one in four in that same period.”
FBU regional secretary for London, Jon Lambe, echoed Chapman's comments and said at the end of December that over a third of fire engines were unavailable driven by Omicron and cuts.
"At the start of the pandemic our members in London helped in any way possible, volunteering to drive ambulances and working in multi-agency teams dealing with COVID-related fatalities," he said.
"In some cases members spent weeks away from their loved ones for fear of transmitting the virus. But now the tables have turned and the London Fire Brigade itself is in real difficulty. It’s simply not right and it’s not safe”.
According to ITV News, Kevin Evenett, Assistant Director of Operations for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service, denied the staff shortages were linked to COVID.
"Gosport Fire Station was fully crewed on 28 December," he said. "Staff absences unrelated to COVID-19 were managed in line with our contingency plans and personnel were moved around to maintain cover.”
On Wednesday, coronavirus testing rules were eased to reduce the time people have to spend in isolation to try and combat staff absences. People who test positive on a lateral flow test will no longer need a confirmatory PCR to begin the self-isolation period if they do not have symptoms.
Soaring rates have also forced multiple hospitals to declare critical incidents in recent days as staff case rates and rising hospital admissions jeopardise the quality and ability of NHS trusts to provide care.
Royal College of Nursing director Patricia Marquis has warned shortages are not only threatening care but also traumatising staff.
"Many nursing staff are going into work with only half the number of staff that are needed but with still the same number of patients to look after," she said.
The news comes as Boris Johnson said the country would have to "ride out" the tidal wave of Omicron cases, and that there is a "good chance" there will be no additional restrictions or lockdowns in coming weeks.
At a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday, Johnson announced 100,000 “critical workers” including those in transport, policing and food distribution will get lateral flow tests on every working day starting on Monday.
The prime minister is so far rebutting calls from some business leaders to cut the period of self-isolation to five days.
Watch: Boris Johnson sticks with Plan B in bid to ‘ride out’ Omicron without lockdown