Staffing 'main challenge' facing NHS as more than 500 off sick in a week at one Welsh health board

  • Video report by ITV Wales journalist Richard Morgan

A senior Welsh nurse has told ITV Wales that staffing is "the main problem" our NHS currently faces as hundreds of healthcare workers are off sick or isolating.

For example, at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, more than 500 staff have tested positive for coronavirus in the last seven days alone.

The Interim Secondary care Nursing Director at the north Wales health board said they are having to cope with this on top of the number of people off sick with other illnesses. They are relying on staff taking on extra shifts or overtime and using temporary workers to plug the gap.

It comes as health officials confirm Omicron is the most dominant strain of coronavirus in Wales with the variant accounting for 80% of cases in some areas of the country.

Resources are stretched as staff deal with the added pressures of Covid and staffing vaccine centres. Credit: PA Images

Mandy Jones, the Interim Secondary care Nursing Director at Betsi Cadwaladr UHB said maintaining good staffing levels is crucial for them to continue safely running emergency and urgent care.

She said: "A major contributor for us being able to sustain services for emergency care is the staffing that we've got. So for example, this month compared to October-November, we've got double the amount of staff off.

"In the last seven days there's been over 500 staff who've tested positive for Covid...In addition to that, we've got other sicknesses and since March there's been about a 20% increase in the number of staff who are off as a total."

When asked if there was a danger hospitals could be overwhelmed, Ms Jones said she could not say. She explained they have managed to maintain all the services they possibly can but "it is a big, big challenge".

"We try and be as safe as we can, to provide the services that we need to for emergencies and urgent care," she said.

"The consequence of that is that we constantly have to risk assess continuously, hour by hour, day by day, as to what services we can provide.

"We have to rely on staff doing additional shifts, overtime and also the use of temporary staffing workforce, which we're very very grateful of but we would not be able to maintain emergency and urgent services without our phenomenal staff.

"It is a challenge, and a lot of staff including myself and my team included are tired. People are tired.

"But we are here to do a job, we try and do it well and we try and be as safe as we possibly can because we are responding to a pandemic that nobody thought would sustain the longevity it has."

Cases of Omicron in Wales continue to rise as it is now the dominant strain in Wales.

Public Health Wales' Dr Meng Khaw said when looking at the data, case numbers are highest amongst those aged between 20 and 29 years old, however this is "reassuring" in some ways as the need for hospitalisation is less likely in the young.

He said: "What we've seen when we've broken down the data by age group is that the 20-29 year olds are affected most, which is reassuring in part but I think the message is still very much that you need to take up the offer for booster vaccination if you receive an invite."

Dr Khaw said health officials are monitoring hospitalistions with the virus "very, very carefully" as this is "one of the best markers we have around the severity of Covid infection".

He added that data appears to support lowering the isolation period in Wales from ten to seven days. That move has already been made in England, where people only have to quarantine for seven days and return two negative lateral flow test results during particular days in that time frame.

Dr Khaw said: "I've looked at the evidence and certainly it seems that the risk of someone being infectious after seven days isolation and two days of negative lateral flow test results is equivalent to a ten day isolation period without lateral flow testing.

"So I think when you look at the science it makes sense to do so, but clearly there are other considerations to make that even with the slightest increase in risk of infection, we need to take that into account as well."

The seven-day case rate for coronavirus in Wales is at an all time high and on Tuesday, the UK as a whole recorded the highest number of daily coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.

Wales is currently at Alert Level 2 meaning there are some restrictions on hospitality businesses and events.