Hospitals face being ‘overwhelmed’ says Javid as NHS staff sickness soars

Hospitals face being ‘overwhelmed’ says Javid as NHS staff sickness soars

Hospitals face being “overwhelmed”, Sajid Javid has warned after NHS staff sickness from Covid rose by 50 per cent in one week and the fast-spreading Omicron variant fuels more than 1,000 admissions a day.

The health secretary said officials were monitoring data “hour by hour” after new figures showed the Covid infection rates in the UK reaching record levels with an estimated 1.4 million people with the virus.

NHS leaders fear the “exhausted” service will struggle to deliver care over winter and warn they are in a “state of emergency.”

More than 18,000 staff were off sick with Covid last week, compared to 12,240 in the week before. In London, 43 per cent of all absences were due to the virus.

Scientists fear Omicron is spreading among hospital patients and staff at a similar rate to the wider community, disrupting the NHS despite fresh evidence it causes less severe illness than earlier strains.

“Cases are currently very high in the UK, and even a relatively low proportion requiring hospitalisation could result in a significant number of people becoming seriously ill,” said Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Latest figures show that week-on-week hospital admissions and Covid diagnosis in hospital across England increased by 34 per cent, while 119,789 new Covid cases were reported on Wednesday – another pandemic record.

Mr Javid said studies suggesting Omicron causes milder symptoms were “promising” but warned it was spreading at an “extraordinary rate” and that “hospital admissions are increasing, and we cannot risk the NHS being overwhelmed.”

Patients getting Covid in hospital

Experts at the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have seen figures from Manchester that show Omicron infections are doubling every two to three days among patients and staff. “This suggests that Omicron is getting into hospitals at a similar rate to its spread in the community,” the group said.

Analysis suggests that 15 per cent of recent Covid cases in all English hospitals are patients who were already in hospital for something else. In London, that figure was as high as 24.4 per cent.

Tom Lawton, an intensive care consultant from Bradford who carried out the analysis, said staff had grown “complacent” over the risk of in-hospital transmission, adding that the highly-infectious Omicron variant had exposed persistent issues of infection control.

“In many places we’re still treating this as a droplet/contact disease and furiously scrubbing surfaces without dealing with ventilation, filtration, proper PPE [personal protective equipment], as required for an airborne disease,” he said.

A NHS spokesperson said: “The ONS [Office for National Statistics] and other data conclusively demonstrate that the root cause of rising infection rates in hospitals is rising rates in the community, so it is no surprise that as the Omicron wave has increased Covid cases this is also reflected in hospitals.

“Weekly reports have consistently shown that outbreaks in hospitals are less common than in other settings with NHS staff rigorously following UKHSA infection prevention control guidance.”

Facing a ‘catastrophe’

Weekly data shows that 18,829 NHS staff were off sick with Covid on 19 December, out of a total of 64,221 off sick.

In London, the centre of the Omicron wave, the figure was 3,874 – three times the previous week.

It comes amid increasing concerns over the level of staff predicted to be off sick in the next month, with most hospitals in England forecasting more than 30 per cent of staff could be off sick in January as Omicron infections rip through the population.

Weekly data published by the NHS on Wednesday also showed that, as of 19 December, almost 5,000 patients who were in hospital last week had been awaiting discharge for more than three weeks. This is out of 15,718 patients in hospital beds who no longer need to be there.

NHS England has asked all trusts to prepare to use hotels and care homes as hospital wards and make provisions to treat 15 per cent of Covid patients at home in “virtual wards”.

Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing’s England director, told The Independent in a statement: “There’s no doubt that if the worse-case scenarios being mooted materialise, the impact on the NHS would be catastrophic.

“The nursing workforce is already short-staffed and exhausted, both mentally and physically, so the soaring absence rates must fill everybody on the frontline, and the public, with real concern.

‘A state of emergency’ for the NHS

“The NHS just has to be able to cope with emergency and urgent care in order for the public to feel safe.

“Winter is difficult at the best of times. In the current situation it doesn’t look like there’s an end in sight and that makes the situation sometimes feel even more hopeless than it might actually be.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive for NHS Confederation, which represents trusts, said: “Right now we are in the position that we have been in for several weeks, which is essentially a state of emergency for the health service, and it’s going to be in that state for some weeks.”

He said with the combined pressure of emergency demand, addressing cancer waiting times, and planned care backlog, the issues in social care, winter and you add in high levels of staff absence all the NHS can do is effectively “crisis manage.”

Professor Stephen Powis, the national medical director of NHS England, said: “The NHS is on a war footing and staff are taking the fight to omicron, by boosting hundreds of thousands of people each day, treating thousands of seriously ill Covid patients and delivering urgent care for other conditions, all while seeing a worrying, high and rising increase in absence due to Covid.”

Military assistance in Scotland

Meanwhile, in Scotland an extra 90 military personnel are being drafted in to support struggling health boards NHS Ayrshire and Arran, NHS Grampian and NHS Lanarkshire.

The personnel will join 221 members of the armed forces who have been supporting the vaccine programme across Scotland, while 114 are driving ambulances in support of the Scottish Ambulance Service.

Scotland’s health secretary Humza Yousaf said: “I’m grateful to military personnel for their efforts at this time, along with all frontline staff in our NHS for the vital role they play in help keeping us safe.”

“At this time it is also particularly important that we continue to take all precautions to prevent transmission.

“So test regularly for the virus, limit socialising in the run-up to Christmas, wear face marks where required and open windows to improve ventilation.”

Military personnel were previously called in to help NHS Lanarkshire and NHS Borders in October due to pressures on the health service.

news from:The Independent
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