Covid: Non-urgent operations postponed and critical incidents declared as Omicron hits staffing

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan speaks to an intensive care doctor about the situation in hospitals as several trusts declare critical incidents

Critical incidents have been declared at several NHS trusts, while others have postponed some non-urgent surgery and appointments.

The Omicron variant of Covid is said to be causing mass absences across a range of industries, with the government forecasting that 25% of workforces could be forced into self-isolation by the fast-spreading strain..

Four hospital trusts in England confirmed critical incidents on Tuesday after United Lincolnshire and Morecambe Bay announced critical incidents over the bank holiday weekend. An NHS boss said there were at least half a dozen in total.

The NHS hospital trusts which have declared critical incidents over reduced staff numbers:

  • Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, Cheltenham General Hospital and Stroud Maternity Unit

  • University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, which runs Derriford Hospital

  • Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the Great Western Hospital in Swindon

  • Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs three health care centres: the Blackpool Victoria Hospital, the Clifton Hospital and Fleetwood Hospital

  • Morecambe Bay NHS Trust, which runs six hospitals and health care centres: Furness General Hospital, Millom Hospital, Queen Victoria Hospital, Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Ulverston Community Health Centre and Westmorland General Hospital

  • United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs five hospitals: County Hospital Louth, Lincoln County Hospital, Pilgrim Hospital in Boston, Skegness and District Hospital, and Grantham and District Hospital

In addition, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority announced on Tuesday that 17 hospitals in the region would pause some non-urgent surgery and appointments. Cancer and urgent care would not be affected, the authority said.

The hospitals affected are:

  • Royal Bolton Hospital

  • Fairfield General Hospital

  • Manchester Royal Infirmary

  • Manchester Royal Eye Hospital

  • University Dental Hospital of Manchester

  • St Mary’s Hospital

  • North Manchester General Hospital

  • The Royal Oldham Hospital

  • Salford Royal Hospital

  • Stepping Hill Hospital

  • Tameside General Hospital

  • Trafford General Hospital

  • Royal Albert Edward Infirmary

  • Wrightington Hospital

  • Leigh Infirmary

  • Wythenshawe Hospital

  • Macclesfield District General Hospital

By declaring an internal critical incident, hospital trusts are able to get assistance from nearby hospitals and other NHS trusts, while increasing co-operation between health care centres.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers said it allows them to "carry on providing the services that it needs to provide, particularly the critical and essential services".

The first was confirmed by the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, with an internal letter warning it is "unable to maintain safe staffing levels", leading to "compromised care".

ITV News North of England Reporter Hannah Miller, who was in Blackpool, explains why hospital trusts are declaring critical incidents

The chief executive of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay, Aaron Cummins, said in an internal message shared on Twitter, that "sadly, despite everyone's best efforts, many of our patients are still receiving a level of care and experience that falls below the level of standards we would like".

And a local health boss in Lancashire is warning of a “tsunami of Omicron”.

But Mr Hopson refuted claims up to a quarter of staff could be off work with coronavirus, telling Sky News the data does not suggest this to be the case.

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Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, public health director for Lancashire County Council, said the "immediate concern" in her region is losing staff - both teachers and health workers - to self-isolation caused by an Omicron infection.

Bosses at Derriford Hospital said this winter could be the most challenging it has ever faced as the Omicron variant leads to considerable staff shortages and delays to planned operations.

Chief Operating Officer Jo Beer said: "This morning (January 4) we communicated to our staff that we are operating in an internal critical incident. This is due to the high pressure on urgent care services and increasing demand for Covid beds. 

"We currently have 99 Covid positive patients across Derriford and our three community hospitals and just under 500 staff absent for Covid-related reasons."

In Greater Manchester, where hospitals are pausing elective care, the authority said Covid admissions are "rising sharply" from 126 on December 19 to 359 on January 2 and inpatient diagnoses more than tripled from 193 to 738.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority said in some hospitals, more than one in five patients have Covid and around 15% of hospital staff are off ill with Covid or isolating.

It added: "There are also outbreaks in an increasing number of care homes, which is affecting how people are discharged from hospital.

"The bed modelling suggests these challenges may get worse, not better, in the next week or two."

Despite the critical incidents and staff shortages in other public sectors, Prime Minister Boris Johnson accepted that the coming weeks will see Covid-19 cause significant disruption to hospitals, schools and the economy, but insisted there is nothing in the data that requires a tightening of restrictions.It comes despite the Royal College of Nursing sending an open letter to Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Monday, urging him to take a "more cautious approach" to coronavirus restrictions, "without further delay".

Asked whether the armed forces could help with staff absences, Mr Javid noted the military is "helping already in vaccination centres across the country".

He added: "For instance, with that delivery, the NHS is getting a huge amount of support from volunteers and others as well.

"But the NHS is also widely using an emergency list of workers that has been able to develop over the pandemic so far, and then call on clinicians and others that may have retired for example, to come back and help.

"Also the NHS Reserves Programme is something that the Government set up with the NHS. We piloted it in six regions across England and now it's being rolled out nationally and that's helping as well."

Hospitals are struggling to maintain safe staff levels. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

It comes with the the government drawing up contingency plans for huge staff shortages of up to 25% at work places across the UK.

The PM has asked ministers to develop "robust contingency plans" for the absences, as the government acknowledged the high Covid levels could hit businesses hard.

Prime Minister Johnson warned on Monday the Omicron variant "continues to surge through the country" and pressure on the NHS would last for weeks.

He said: "I think we've got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course of the next couple of weeks, and maybe more."

Mr Johnson said he appreciated the pressure NHS staff were under, and that it was "vital that we make sure that we help them by trying to contain the pandemic" by getting vaccinated and following plan B measures.

And he warned it would be "absolute folly to say that this thing is all over now bar the shouting".

But Mr Hopson of NHS Providers said said raised before Christmas of a huge rise in the number of seriously ill older people needing critical care and mechanical ventilation has not occurred yet.

"There are a number of chief executives who are saying, if we were going to see that surge, we probably would have seen the beginnings of it up to now, so there are glimmers of hope."