NHS struggles as sickness takes out 1 in 10 staff

More than 110,000 NHS staff — nearly one in 10 — were absent on New Year’s Eve, according to figures showing that Covid is hitting healthcare far harder than previously thought.

SOURCE: The Times Uk

Of them, almost 50,000 were at home sick or self-isolating because of Covid-19 while patients faced 40-hour waits at A&E, late operations, closed wards and long ambulance delays.

Boris Johnson has told ministers to test emergency contingency plans to minimise the disruption to services such as hospitals, schools and social care. Public sector leaders have been told to prepare for a worst-case scenario of workforce absences of 25 per cent.

The 110,000 figure refers to all NHS staff. On Friday NHS England released sickness data relating to acute hospitals up to December 26, which showed that 68,000 staff were absent, in 25,000 cases because of Covid.

However, according to its own dashboard, sickness levels for acute trusts had jumped to 86,716 by December 31, a rise of 27 per cent. Covid-related absences reached 40,325, an increase of 62 per cent in five days. These numbers included 19,143 nurses and midwives and 2,120 doctors.

People must self-isolate for seven days after getting Covid symptoms, and then can leave only when they have produced two negative lateral flow results 24 hours apart. There have been calls for this to be reduced to five days, as has happened in America, but the UK Health Security Agency warned yesterday this could spread the virus and worsen staff shortages.

Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, is chairing regular meetings on the situation; a decision on whether to renew plan B restrictions is due next week.

He warned: “As people return to work following the Christmas break, the high transmissibility levels of Omicron mean business and public services will face disruption in the coming weeks, particularly from higher-than-normal staff absence.”

Despite the absence figures, the government appears bullish about not having to impose further restrictions over the coming weeks. Ed Argar, a minister at the Department for Health and Social Care, said: “I’m seeing nothing at the moment in the data in front of me, in the immediate situation, that suggests a need for further restrictions.”

He added: “We need cool, calm heads. We need to look at the data and we need to do everything possible to avoid any restrictions. Restrictions or curbs must be the absolute last resort.”

In comments that will please Conservative MPs frustrated by restrictions, Argar said: “What we’ve seen with this prime minister before Christmas, and over the Christmas period, is he’s looked at the data, he’s judged it very carefully. And he, I think, shares that same view, which is we’ve got to learn to live with this virus.”

A South African public health expert said this morning that she was hopeful the UK would follow the pattern observed in her country, which has now “passed the peak” of new Omicron infections and soon see cases fall.

Dr Michelle Groome, head of the Division of Public Health, Surveillance and Response at the National Institute for Communicable Disease in South Africa, told T&G on Times Radio: “I think with time, I think we have been a little bit more confident that things will settle. So I think [it is] difficult to categorically say that you will see the same decreases, but I’m hopeful that you would see a similar pattern as we’re seeing here.

"I think we saw this record increase in the first few weeks, and I think over four
weeks into it, I think we’re starting to see the decreases. So one would hope that
you would start seeing decreases in the next week or two.”


She confirmed that the Omicron wave had proven less dangerous in South Africa than earlier variants, adding: “In terms of comparisons to Delta — very similar number of cases, but we’re only seen just under 50 per cent of hospitalisations compared to Delta and just over 10 per cent of deaths.”


Reports from the health service suggest the scale of absence is worse than ministers have publicly recognised, days before the NHS experiences its busiest week of the year. In London, the centre of the Omicron surge, Covid absences account for 51 per cent of the total: 7,255 staff, including 3,340 nurses and 622 doctors. In the Midlands regions, 43 per cent of staff were off sick because of Covid, including 3,639 nurses and 419 doctors.

At Lewisham Hospital in southeast London on Wednesday half of the unit’s nurses were off sick, prompting the trust to close some cubicles and redeploy staff from other parts of the hospital to keep patients safe.

Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust said it was having to delay some operations while making sure high-priority cases such as cancer surgery went ahead. It and other trusts across southeast London have agreed to pay £10 an hour on top of the usual overtime rate to clinical staff working extra shifts.

In Northampton some patients are waiting more than 40 hours in A&E, and dozens are waiting 12 hours on trolleys until they can be given a bed.

Staff shortages have also hit maternity services and neonatal units, where the number of cots for seriously ill newborns has been reduced because of the lack of specialist nurses, with some babies being transferred between hospitals.

University College Hospitals London (UCLH) has had to reduce the number of specialist cots in its neonatal unit because of a shortage of staff. One nurse said babies were being moved to hospitals across the southeast region.

UCLH said: “We are seeing higher levels of staff absence, and this is a reflection of the high instance of community infection across London. Our teams are monitoring the situation and working hard to minimise any disruption to services.”

The ambulance service for the West Midlands said it was so stretched it could not send paramedics to 999 callers quickly enough, declaring a major risk to patient safety. It experienced a 17 per cent jump in 999 calls in the five days to December 28, compared with the same period in 2019, a total of 22,826 emergency calls.

In a briefing to staff, the chief nurse, Mark Docherty, said: “Unfortunately, there have been several cases where severe patient harm has occurred due to the number of calls awaiting allocation.”

Similar delays are hitting response times in London, Yorkshire, the southeast and Northern Ireland.

A leaked email from NHS England to GPs last week warned that the capital’s ambulance service was facing “exceptional pressures” responding to 999 calls and urged GPs to use alternatives where possible.

The London Ambulance Service confirmed it was “extremely busy”, receiving 6,500 emergency 999 calls a day, compared with a normal busy day of 5,500.

While it is managing to reach the most serious calls in seven minutes, there have been delays of almost an hour reaching people with suspected strokes or heart attacks when an ambulance should be there in 18 minutes. The service has redeployed staff to ensure more crews are on the road and in its control rooms to fill in staffing gaps.

NHS England said essential bedside care would be provided by a wider pool of staff including students, therapists and care assistants. It added that hospitals should consider using volunteers with a health background as well as St John Ambulance staff and former NHS staff who were willing to come back after retirement.

In a message to trust bosses on Friday, NHS England’s chief operating officer, Sir David Sloman, admitted staff were struggling to access Covid tests online and from pharmacies. He said the UK Health Security Agency would be prioritising extra tests for NHS and social care staff.

An NHS England spokesman added: “Rising infection rates and hospitalisations will see demand and staff absences continue to increase so it is right the NHS prepares for the worst, but people should continue to come forward for care and the public can play their part by getting their booster vaccine.”


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