Weekend begins early as many take day off to avoid traffic jams: Stations are deserted and roads quieter than usual as tens of thousands of workers heed minister's advice to stay at home

THE BRITISH disease has changed its symptoms. A country of strikers has been transformed into a nation of skivers.

Tens of thousands of workers across the country yesterday heeded the advice of Steven Norris, Minister for Transport in London, and the Institute of Management, to stay at home rather than battle through traffic jams to the office.

And why not? The sun was shining, schools had broken up for the Easter holidays and the opportunity to bask in the unexpected luxury of a long weekend looked too good to pass up.

The predicted travel chaos failed to materialise. The normally heaving Euston Road in central London flowed freely at 9am, as did most of the capital's main arteries.

Hampshire Police said motorways, including the London-bound M3, were quieter than normal, while in the North-west motoring organisations reported the rush hour passing without any significant increase in traffic.

'It is like a Sunday on some roads,' an AA spokeswoman said. 'It seems as if a lot of people have taken the day off. The rush hour last night was really dreadful, but it looks like the weekend began early.'

Britain was having a day off. But unlike some of the memorable standstills of the past, condemned as the evil work of union menaces like Derek 'Red Robbo' Robinson, the union convenor who led 523 disputes at British Leyland during a three- year period in the Seventies, or Arthur Scargill, yesterday's national go-slow was endorsed by a government minister and the captains of industry.

A spokeswoman for the London Chamber of Commerce, one body unimpressed with Mr Norris's advice in the midst of a recession, said rising unemployment means everyone is doing the work of two people, certainly in the City and 'every time a half-decent excuse comes along they decide to take the day off'.

According to a report published in January by the Industrial Society, Britain's largest independent employment advisory service, workers take up to 200 million days off sick every year, costing the economy pounds 9bn - compared with the 523,000 working days lost through strike action last year. Overall absentee rates have fallen since the mid-Eighties, and while they are still more rife among blue-collar workers, recent trends suggest white-collar employees may be catching up.

Since 1987, the rates for heavy manufacturing have fallen from 6.5 per cent to 5.46 per cent and increased in banking and financial services from 2.52 to 2.65 per cent. During the same period, rates in the more industrialised Midlands have tumbled from 6.4 per cent to as low as 3.5 per cent in parts of the region, while rising in London from 3.31 per cent to 4.97 per cent.

The main reasons given by employees for days off included colds and flu, food poisoning, earache and trips to the doctor or dentist. Employers, however, were inclined to believe that more days were lost through stress, personal problems and Monday 'blues'. To that, they can now add rail strikes and government advice.

Mr Norris was too busy (at work) in the House of Commons to explain the latter yesterday. But Roger Young, director-general of the Institute of Management, who, according to a spokesman, 'couldn't possibly come in, he wouldn't find a parking space', said from his Ipswich home: 'I wonder how many people will now realise how productive they are at home and might decide in the future that they will take one day off each week to work at home.'

(Photograph omitted)

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