NHS on 'war footing' as London hospitals face staffing crisis with thousands off for Covid reasons

A nurse wearing full PPE including an FFP3 face mask on a ward for Covid patients at King's College Hospital, in south east London. Picture date: Tuesday December 21, 2021.
A nurse wearing full PPE including an FFP3 face mask on a ward for Covid patients at King's College Hospital. Credit: PA

NHS is on a "war footing" with London hospitals facing record staff absences for Covid-19 reasons as the health service grapples with its busiest Christmas period ever.

At Guy’s & St Thomas’ hospital trust, 515 staff were absent, either ill with Covid-19 or isolating, on December 19, up from 193 on December 12.

King’s College trust reported 505 absences, up from 193.

Other hospital trusts in London with steep jumps in Covid-19-related absences include Imperial College (365 on December 19, up from 158 a week earlier), Barts (338, up from 91) and Great Ormond Street (351, up from 70).

A total of 3,874 NHS staff at acute hospital trusts in London were absent for Covid-19 reasons on December 19, more than double the number a week earlier (1,540) and more than three times the number at the start of the month (1,174), according to new figures from NHS England.

Across England as a whole, 18,829 NHS staff at acute trusts were absent due to Covid-19 reasons on December 19, up 54% from 12,240 a week earlier and up 51% from 12,508 at the start of the month.

It comes as hospital admissions soar. On Tuesday, there were 307 Covid-19 admissions recorded by hospitals in London, 54% week-on-week and the highest number for a single day since February 4, NHS England said.

Admissions in London during the second wave peaked at 977 on January 6.

Across England, 1,098 admissions were recorded on December 21, up 35% week-on-week and the highest number for a single day since February 18.

The second-wave peak was 4,134 admissions on January 12.

The number of Covid-19 admissions includes people admitted to hospital in the previous 24 hours who were known to have Covid-19, plus any patients diagnosed in hospital with Covid-19 in the previous 24 hours.

Bed occupancy rates 5% higher than last year, Chief executive of NHS Providers Chris Hopson said.

An estimated 1.4 million people in the UK had the virus in the week ending December 16, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

“If you look at the broader picture, we are busier at this time of year than we’ve ever been before,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Our bed occupancy rate is 94.5% compared to last year’s 89%. That’s a huge difference in terms of much more busy.”

Mr Hopson said around 2,800 people every day are having to wait more than half an hour in the back of ambulances before being admitted to hospital, with staff shortages worsening the strain.

London Ambulance Service said this week that 12% of staff are currently on sick leave.

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis 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.

“We are once again ramping up to deal with the rise in Covid infections and, quite rightly, staff are making every possible preparation for the uncertain challenges of Omicron, including recruiting thousands of nurses and reservists, but while we’ll leave no stone unturned to get the NHS battle-ready, it remains the case that the best way to protect yourself and others is to follow guidance and to come forward and get your first, second and booster jabs.”

From Thursday, people who test positive for Covid-19 in England will be able to cut their self-isolation period from 10 days to seven if they return negative lateral flow tests.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid acknowledged that staff absences due to Covid were adding to pressures on the NHS but said the easing of self-isolation rules would help.

On Thursday, the UK has for the first time recorded more than 100,000 new Covid cases in a day.