Britain phones in sick as flu bug spreads – and it's going to get worse

Britain's gloomy start to 2011 continued with more than 300,000 people ringing in sick for work yesterday claiming to be suffering from cold and flu-like symptoms.

With more snow and travel disruption predicted for the rest of the week, eventually reaching the south of England by the end of the week, employers were warned to prepare for escalating numbers of absences.

According to FirstCare, a management company which monitors sickness rates in both the public and private sectors, the number of staff too ill to work increased by 10 per cent yesterday, compared with the day before. FirstCare also suggests the absenteeism is costing the country up to £50m a day.

The NHS has been hit badly, with its staff at the frontline of dealing with seasonal ailments. The majority of calls that NHS Direct is receiving are about colds, influenza or diarrhoea and vomiting.

"We see these winter illnesses from about the start of December and it will probably go on now for a couple more weeks," said a spokesman.

However, because health workers traditionally act as a barometer for ailments affecting the rest of the population, so rising numbers of absent employees are expected later this week in offices and factories.

The number of health workers off sick at this time of year is normally a third higher than among other employees, but since Tuesday this figure has risen to 47 per cent, said FirstCare chief executive Aaron Ross.

"NHS workers' absence rates are a good barometer of likely trends in cough, cold and flu absences, due to the nature of their work, so we can expect to see a general increase across the working population in the coming days," said Mr Ross.

December's snow and ice cost Britain up to £1bn a day in travel disruption, lost sales and workplace absences.

Last night the Met Office warned that further snow would arrive in the south on Friday.