Covid: The Welsh services under extreme pressure as staff shortages surge amid Omicron

*Report by ITV Cymru Wales national correspondent Rob Osbourne

Public services in Wales are under unprecedented pressure as staff absences continue to surge.

With Omicron now the dominant variant in Wales and case rates at an all-time high, the number of people isolating is depleting the workforce across the country. 

Hospitals and local authorities are stretched to levels beyond anything previously encountered, while public transport continues to run at reduced capacity.

Meanwhile, care homes across Wales are described as being on a "war footing".

Care facing its 'worst-ever crisis'

According to Care Forum Wales chair Mario Kreft, the sector is facing its worst-ever crisis.

Care homes are reporting up to 75% of staff currently off work, despite the Welsh Government cutting the isolation period from 10 to seven days last week.

Mr Kreft said some homes have had to introduce temporary restrictions on visiting.

"The scale of the challenge is one we have never faced before. It's really, really tough out there," he said.

"The first minister reminded us in 2020 that the social care sector was in a fragile state before the pandemic because of its precarious finances and the shortage of staff."

With some staff in the sector having already quit their jobs to work in tourism and hospitality because of burnout, Mr Kreft wonders whether there are enough people available to step in.

"The trouble is that we all know they are suffering like everybody else at the moment so whether there would be people available to alleviate the crisis, I don't know,” he continued.

"What we are talking about is making sure that people are as comfortable and as safe as they can be.”

With some homes taking the decision to cancel visits, the Welsh Government has said that even if a care home is dealing with an outbreak, visits by essential visitors should still be supported in line with guidance.  

A spokesperson for the government said: “We have taken early and decisive action to keep Wales safe in light of the spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

“We continue to work very closely with the care sector and its representatives. This includes providing guidance, financial support and access to PPE supplies. 

"Local authorities are in continuous contact with care homes to ensure staffing is maintained at a level to ensure the safety and well-being of residents.

"Whilst we appreciate the considerable pressures care homes are facing, blanket bans on care home visits are not appropriate.   Visits should be supported in line with our visiting guidance.  

"If a care home is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, visits by the 'essential visitor' should still be supported in line with the guidance and the care home’s risk assessment.”

Reduced A&E and appeals for more staff

Swansea Bay University Health Board had to reduce its A&E department at Morriston Hospital to a limited service over the weekend.

The health board has also appealed to nurses and healthcare workers to volunteer to Calling Swansea Bay nurses and HCSWs to work extra hours.

Helen Whyley director of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales told ITV Wales: “I think this is the worst staffing we have seen during the pandemic. 

“Primarily that is because of the number of staff who have caught this variant. In some areas, we are seeing the sickness rates being worryingly high.”

An emergency rail timetable

Transport for Wales have announced a second 15% decrease on services Credit: TfW

TfW and Network Rail have seen a significant increase in staff absences and an emergency rail timetable was introduced from December 22, reducing 10-15% of the standard timetable. 

With staff absences continuing to increase, the decision has been taken to further reduce 10-15% of the timetable.

Jan Chaudhry-Van de Velde, managing director of TfW Rail, said: “We are very much dealing with the Omicron wave of Covid infections and, like many public service organisations, have seen a major rise in colleague absences over the last few weeks.

“It’s fundamental we continue to run as reliable a service as possible for our customers and therefore we are introducing a revised timetable from 3 January, reducing the risk of late notice cancellations.

“Wherever we can, we’ll use additional carriages made available due to the reduced timetable to run longer trains, which will help with social distancing. We’ll also provide supplementary road transport, where possible.

“We appreciate this will be frustrating for some customers, and we have not taken this decision lightly. 

“We ask that all customers check online before they travel and follow current government advice. Our aim is to restore the timetable as soon as absence rates caused by this wave of the pandemic allow.”

Councils limiting non-essential services

Council leaders also fear there will have to be a return to the earliest days of the pandemic when only essential services were carried out by staff. 

Andrew Morgan, leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, said: “I am confident that the main services, those critical services, will be maintained and kept functioning. 

“But, over the coming weeks, we may see other services local authorities provide scaled back, or in some councils, stop them if it is deemed it is the only way to protect those priority services.”