Workers sleep at power plant to stop Omicron cutting Austria's lights

Vienna energy supplier isolates staff amid personnel shortages across Europe

Austria expects a fifth wave of coronavirus infections caused by the Omicron variant. AP
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An Austrian energy supplier is moving its employees into power plant dormitories to stop them catching the Omicron variant, going off sick and forcing blackouts in central Europe.

The drastic step by Vienna Energy means 50 employees will have to camp out at work for at least four weeks, cutting them off from an outside world where scientists expect a fifth wave of infections to hit Austria.

The move comes amid real and predicted staff shortages across Europe as the fast-spreading Omicron strain leads to record infection numbers in countries including Britain, France and Italy.

It also comes as Europe’s energy supplies face a squeeze from tensions with Russia, closures in France and the looming end of nuclear power generation in Germany.

“Safety comes first,” said Vienna Energy chairman Michael Strebl. “This is a far-reaching step, but a necessary one to guarantee supply under all circumstances.”

The company’s “first priority is that Vienna’s heating is warm and the lights are on at all times”, he said.

Some employees previously isolated at power plants in the first weeks of the pandemic in March 2020, the company said, including 22 people who will do so again this time.

Austria’s infection numbers are rising again after falling from a November peak of Delta cases. The country plans to make vaccinations compulsory next year.

Across Europe, staff shortages in health care, aviation and other industries have disrupted the holiday season as Omicron runs rampant.

Many transatlantic flights from European cities were cancelled – including London, Berlin and Amsterdam – after flight crews were hit by illness.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz used concerns over potential shortages in the police and fire brigade as justification for restrictions that took effect this week.

In France, the pandemic has disrupted maintenance at the nuclear reactors which supply most of the country’s electricity.

Cold weather in January could lead to contingency measures such as reduced voltage or power cuts of up to two hours, said French grid operator RTE.

In Britain, about 4,580 hospital staff in London were absent for virus-related reasons on Boxing Day, up by almost a fifth on the previous week. Ministers have resisted calls to impose restrictions in England.

The head of public health at Imperial College London said the country faced the “twin pressure” of rising hospital admissions and large numbers of health workers being unwell.

Dr Azeem Majeed said he was required to test twice a week as a National Health Service worker, but often found no testing kits in stock.

If temporary overflow hospitals were needed, it would be “a struggle to find the staff to deal with those patients”, he told Times Radio.

Updated: December 31, 2021, 11:46 AM