The NHS in England is experiencing the highest number of Covid absences since the vaccine rollout, with more than 40,000 staff unable to attend work on two days in the past week, prompting claims that hospitals are “simply not safe”.
An average of 35,596 staff were sick with Covid in the past week, a level last seen in January 2021 at the height of the second wave of the pandemic and higher than any week since all priority groups were offered at least their first vaccine in mid-February.
The number of NHS staff in England off sick due to Covid rose by 41% in the week to 2 January, latest health service figures show. The average of almost 36,000 was up from 25,000 the week before. It is also the third week in a row that absences have risen by about 40%.
These absence figures are still much lower than those seen during the first wave peak, when almost 83,000 staff were off due to Covid.
Including non-Covid absences, more than 80,000 staff were absent each day on average, up from 71,000 the previous week. Almost half of staff absences are due to Covid (44%).
Military personnel are being deployed to NHS trusts in London to help plug staff shortages.
Northamptonshire on Thursday declared a system-wide major incident, with hospitals, care homes and emergency services subject to a shortage of staff and facing increased demand because of coronavirus, Northamptonshire police said.
Northamptonshire Local Resilience Forum, made up of NHS organisations, local authorities, Northamptonshire fire and rescue service and Northamptonshire police, issued the alert due to “rising demand on services and staffing levels”.
Staff shortages were so serious and so widespread that hospitals were now unsafe, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) claimed.
“These figures reveal why the government hurriedly announced military support for health and care services in London last night. The numbers off work due to Covid-19 in acute trusts rose by almost 60% in the most recent week and have more than trebled in a month to nearly 40,000 staff in a single day,” said Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s director for England.
“Outside of healthcare, staffing shortages are closing shops and cancelling trains but nurses can’t stop helping their patients. Instead, they find themselves spread thinner and thinner, but they can’t keep spinning plates indefinitely either. This situation is simply not safe.”
The NHS Confederation said this week that some trusts had recently had as many as 750 staff off sick as a result of Covid or other illnesses and that at one trust, 270 of the 413 personnel on sick leave last Friday were a direct result of Covid.
“It’s clear that we are facing a staffing crisis in the NHS, with a number of hospitals telling us they have around 10% of their staff in self-isolation or on sick leave for other reasons,” the confederation’s chief executive, Matthew Taylor, said on Thursday.
Hospitals were “extremely concerned” about units being left with too few personnel to maintain normal staffing levels for patients, he added.
However, NHS Providers, another hospital body, said sickness absence was running as high as 19% in some trusts outside of London.
Many of the at least 24 hospital trusts whom it has emerged this week have recently had to declare an internal critical incident – an admission that they cannot cope with the level of demand they are facing – cited staff sickness absences as a key reason. On Thursday, the Ministry of Defence announced that the 200 military personnel were being deployed to help hospitals in London, including 40 doctors.
NHS England’s national medical director, Prof Stephen Powis, said the Omicron variant meant there were more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them. “In fact, around 10,000 more colleagues across the NHS were absent each day last week compared with the previous seven days and almost half of all absences are now down to Covid.
“While we don’t know the full scale of the potential impact this new strain will have it’s clear it spreads more easily and, as a result, Covid cases in hospitals are the highest they’ve been since February last year – piling even more pressure on hard working staff.”