NHS Covid-related staff absences rise 60% in period between Christmas and New Year

ITV News Correspondent Chloe Keedy hears from health leaders about continued NHS pressures, as the army is drafted in to help across the capital

New figures have revealed the strain the NHS was under in the period between Christmas and New Year as the health service battled with tens of thousands of staff Covid-related absences recorded amid rising patient numbers.

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said rising Covid-19 cases were “piling even more pressure” on hospital trust workers as figures revealed the number of hospital workers in England absent for Covid-related reasons had risen by almost 60% week-on-week.

Hospital staff absences due to Covid more than doubled in a week across the North East and Yorkshire with a total of 8,788 NHS staff at hospital trusts in the region were ill with coronavirus or having to self-isolate on January 2, up 110% on the 4,179 reported on Boxing Day.

The new NHS England figures, published on Friday, also show Covid hospital staff absences in the North West rose by 85% week-on-week from 3,966 to 7,338, while in the Midlands it was up 65% to 7,931, from 4,812.

Covid staff absences at acute trusts rose by 58% week-on-week in the South West, 42% in the South East and 40% in eastern England.

There were 82,384 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England who were absent for all sickness reasons on January 2, including self-isolation, up 21% on the previous week (68,082) and up 37% from the start of December (60,136), NHS England said.

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Overall there were 39,142 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England who were absent for Covid-related reasons on January 2, up 59% from 24,632 the previous week and more than three times the 12,508 at the start of December. The total includes staff who were ill with coronavirus or who were having to self-isolate.

The figures suggest one in 25 (4%) of NHS staff working in acute hospital trusts are off sick or self-isolating due to Covid, based on NHS Digital monthly workforce data for September for acute trusts – the most recent available.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals and Royal United Hospitals Bath foundation trusts had the highest proportion of staff off due to Covid on January 2 based on their September headcount, both at 10%. They were followed by Chesterfield Royal Hospital and Homerton University Hospital foundation trusts, both at 9%, then Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust at 7%.

Meanwhile, both the George Eliot Hospital NHS Trust and University hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust were the only two acute trusts which had no Covid staff absences on January 2.

The military have been deployed in hospitals to deal with staff shortages.

In London, where absences were up 4% week-on-week, from 4,580 to 4,765, troops were being deployed in the capital to support the NHS amid growing staff shortages due to Covid-19, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said.

While absences have slowed in London, where the Omicron variant first began to surge, with hospital staff absences due to Covid rising 4% from 4,580 on Boxing Day to 4,765 on January 2, there were more than four times the 1,174 staff absences due to Covid reported at the beginning of December.

Non-urgent operations were being cancelled and ambulance wait times were increasingly at many hospitals in England, with 24 hospital trusts declaring critical incidents.

Some 200 armed forces personnel are being made available to hospitals across the capital, which has been the epicentre of the Omicron outbreak with a huge upsurge in cases.

The data covers ambulance arrivals and delay times, whether A&Es had to close due to demand, staff sickness, bed occupancy and interestingly, beds occupied by ‘long-stayers’, i.e 21 days and over.

Prof Powis said: "Omicron means 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.

"Those staff are stepping up as they always do; answering a quarter more 111 calls last week than the week before, dealing with an increasing number of ambulance call outs, and working closely with colleagues in social care to get people out of hospital safely."

The NHS boss urged people to get vaccinated and use 111 online for non emergencies, "call 999 when it is a life threatening condition – the NHS is here for you," he added.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), told Sky News “we have never known this level of staff absence before”, adding: “Every winter of course, the NHS has additional pressures, but I don’t think anyone who’s worked in the NHS has experienced this level of absence of their colleagues and we’re feeling it in very real time because doctors and nurses and healthcare workers are having to cover for their absent colleagues – that’s adding additional, exceptional strain.”

He said although Omicron was milder, people were still falling seriously ill with Covid-19 and hospitals were dealing with the NHS treatment backlog, with almost six million people on the waiting list.

Of the 13,045 patients with coronavirus in NHS hospital trusts in England on January 4, 8,200 (63%) were being treated primarily for Covid-19, down from 67% a week earlier and 74% at the start of December.

The number being treated primarily for Covid-19 rose from 5,578 on December 28 to 8,200 on January 4 (a jump of 47%), while those with Covid-19 but being treated primarily for something else rose from 2,743 to 4,845 (a jump of 77%).