Hospitals in Lincolnshire have declared a staffing emergency amid a surge in Omicron-fuelled absences that has prompted ministers to draw up plans to recruit 20,000 reservists to help ease winter pressures.
Bosses at United Lincolnshire Hospitals warned that so many doctors and nurses were now absent from shifts that patient care was ‘compromised’, especially for stroke and heart patients.
Yesterday, it declared a ‘critical incident’, meaning hospital bosses are calling in support from nearby trusts to help manage the crisis.
The trust, which runs four major hospitals in the county, saw 7.5 per cent of its 8,500 employees off sick on Boxing Day, according to the NHS’s latest workforce data which showed around 68,000 medics were absent nationwide.
But leaked documents show the staffing crisis has only worsened in hospitals since then, with the figure jumping to 87,000 on New Year’s Eve. Overall, 110,000 employees — or one in ten — were off, including 50,000 suffering from Covid. Trusts have been told to brace for one in four being absent in the worst-case scenario.
Former vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi sought to calm concerns today, saying the NHS could get through the crisis because it was ‘very good’ at redeploying staff to the frontlines.
The now-Education Secretary told BBC Breakfast: ‘They now have an infrastructure to do that. [The NHS] is very good at sort of making sure that staff shortages are monitored and dealt with pretty well. They’ve done it over many years in winter when we’ve been, you know, had big flu viruses around.’
NHS trusts have drawn up plans to deal with staffing crises and pressures from the virus over the winter months, with staff set to be redeployed to the frontline in case of emergencies. Mini-‘Nightingale’ wards are also being set up as an insurance policy.
Several organisations — including trusts in London, Yorkshire and Essex — have now banned visitors for patients, with some saying Covid transmission on their wards had been linked to people visiting patients.
Sajid Javid has also revealed plans for an Army-style reservist force that the NHS can call on amid periods of high pressure. The Health Secretary said the workforce — made up of former medics and non-clinicians — would be uniformed, trained, salaried and contracted to work a certain number of days a year.
Meanwhile, one senior NHS boss warned yesterday that operations could be shelved as early as next week should Covid admissions continue to surge.
The UK has now recorded 12 days in a row where Covid cases have been above 100,000. Yesterday 137,583 cases were recorded, up 15 per cent from last week, with infections now doubling week-on-week in over-65s. Hospital admission rates are also rising. There are currently 11,918 Covid patients in hospitals, the highest level since early March.
United Lincolnshire Hospitals warned so many employees were now absent due to Covid or other illnesses that care had been ‘compromised’ on some of its wards, especially for stroke and cardiac patients. Pictured above is an ambulance arriving at one of the Trust’s four hospitals
The above letter sent out to hospitals across the trust was leaked. It warns that care has been compromised in parts of the trust due to employee absences
Former vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi sought to dampen fears over NHS staffing shortages, saying hospitals were ‘very good’ at redeploying staff because of previous experience with flu outbreaks. Health Secretary Sajid Javid is seeking clinical and non-clinical staff to join a reservist force
Ministers say no to five-day Covid isolation
Ministers have rejected calls to reduce the isolation period for Covid sufferers from seven to five days because up to 30 per cent would still be infectious.
Business leaders and some Tory MPs had urged Ministers to follow the lead of other countries, including the US and Greece, by cutting self-isolation for those showing no symptoms to five days.
But a Government source told The Mail on Sunday that, while the option was discussed, it was rejected because so many people could still go on to infect others if released from self-isolation that early.
It comes amid growing concern that lengthy self-isolation is harming vital services and the economy – and with a growing row over the lack of access to lateral flow tests (LFTs).
As millions prepared to return to work after the festive break, Labour accused the Government of failing to order sufficient numbers of LFTs, which are increasingly seen as essential to keep the country moving while minimising the threat from Omicron.
In a leaked document sent to staff, the United Hospitals Lincolnshire trust warned it needed to declare a ‘critical incident’ because absences sparked by Covid had left it ‘unable to maintain safe staffing levels’.
The document — leaked to local paper The Lincolnite — states: ‘An internal critical incident was declared across the Trust late yesterday and continues into today, due to extreme and unprecedented workforce shortages meaning that we are unable to maintain safe staffing levels.
‘This is resulting in compromised care across our hospitals, and an inability to maintain a number of key pathways, including those around stroke and cardiac care.’
Some 7.5 per cent of staff are currently off sick due to Covid and other absences.
For comparison, at the same time last year almost 10 per cent of staff — 810 ot of 8,500 — were away from wards.
There are currently 41 Covid patients on its wards, compared to almost 200 at the same time last year.
The Trust also declared a ‘critical’ incident at one of its hospitals last year.
Trust chief executive Mark Brassington said at the time that they had to take the step because of a surge in Covid admissions and a ‘staffing shortage in some areas’.
Its medical director Dr Colin Farquson said yesterday: ‘As a reslt of significant staffing pressures due to absence related to Covid, we are having to take additional steps to maintain services.
‘Our staff continue to work exceptionally hard and we would like to reassure our patients and the public that in spite of the challenges faced, essential services remain fully open for anyone who needs them, so people sould continue to come forward for care.’
Mr Javid told The Telegraph: ‘Throughout the pandemic, we have worked with the NHS to boost capacity and ensure we have the right people with the right skills in the right places.
‘We’ve seen thousands of former NHS staff step up and offer their support, with around 17,000 reservists signed up. They have made a real difference, especially in our national mission to Get Boosted Now.
‘The NHS Reserve Programme is a great new way to draw on experience and skills to support our brilliant staff and we will be rapidly expanding in the New Year. If you want to help, look out for opportunities and thanks to everyone who has stepped up to help patients and their country.’
More than 47,000 former health workers including retired doctors and nurses offered to help the NHS at the start of the pandemic under the Covid volunteer scheme.
And a third of these so-called returners have indicated their interest in volunteering long-term.
Ministers have set up the reserves scheme in the hope of capitlising on this interest.
The reservist force — modelled on that used by the Army — will bolster the health service through winter crises, industrial action, major disasters and terror attacks.
There will be groups across all 42 integrated care systems, led locally by each area.
Under the pilot launched in November 2020 some 17,000 people were recruited. They were based in parts of London, Surrey, Devon, Cornwall, Norfolk, Staffordshire, Birmingham and Nottinghamshire.
The group was deployed to support the ramped up booster programme last month.
The 110,000 figure for NHS staff off over New Year’s Eve was for all the health service’s workers. The NHS dashboard showed by December 31 86,716 were off with illness at acute trusts — a leap of 27 per cent.
Of these, 49,921 were away for coronavirus-related reasons, which was up 62 per cent in just five days. These were 19,143 nurses and midwives and 2,120 doctors.
This was a huge leap on Boxing Day, when just one in 40 NHS hospital staff were unavailable to work because of Covid.
NHS England’s medical director Professor Stephen Powis last week talked of the NHS being on a ‘war footing’, a phrase since frequently repeated by broadcasters.
Five hospital trusts reported overall sickness or self-isolation absences exceeding ten per cent on Boxing Day – Sheffield Teaching Hospitals (12.2 per cent), Nottingham University Hospitals (12 per cent), Wirral University Teaching Hospitals (10.9 per cent), Warrington and Halton Hospitals (10.8 per cent) and Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (10.1 per cent).
All had higher than average Covid-related absences.
Taking Covid-related absences alone, three had rates of over five per cent on Boxing Day – Homerton University Hospital in London (7.1 per cent), Royal United Hospitals Bath (6.9 per cent) and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals (6.7 per cent).
But nine reported Covid-related absences of less than one per cent of their workforce on December 26.
Compared to pre-pandemic levels, the figures for New Years Eve showed a five percentage point rise, with December 2019 only having 4.69 per cent of staff off in total.
Chief Executive of NHS Providers Chris Hopson warned more restrictions may be needed soon to stem the flow of patients ending up in hospital.
He said that any more people flooding in will see already ‘flat out’ staff being asked ‘to perform flexible heroics again’.
He wrote on Twitter: ‘NHS now under different, arguably more, pressure compared to last Jan. Much busier urgent and emergency care pathway.
‘Many more planned care cases that cannot be delayed without patient harm. Booster vaccination campaign significantly more resource intensive/complex.
‘Staff absences having greater impact in many trusts. Much greater pressure on social & primary care.
‘All having big impact. NHS – community, mental health, ambulances and hospitals alike – and social care beyond full stretch. Staff facing mountainous workload day in day out.’
He continued: ‘If growth rates go back up again (e.g. Xmas effect) trusts likely to have to start standing up extra surge capacity late next week.
‘Putting pressure on less urgent elective activity. Trusts will do all they can to keep going with urgent and high priority elective activity.’
He added: ‘NHS not been able to grow capacity to meet growing demand. Had to try to close gap by asking staff to work harder, giving them an impossible workload, meaning they can’t provide care they feel patients need. And successive Govts failed to solve growing social care problems.
‘These are all major contributors to current issues and need to be addressed longer term. But, secondly, right now, NHS facing potential immediate emergency it needs to prepare for.’
He added: ‘Choice could potentially be leaving patients untreated or creating extra temporary capacity.’
His comments are a dramatic volte-face as before the New Year he said there was no need for any new lockdown measures to tackle Omicron because severe cases are remaining stable.
England’s Covid cases breached 160,000 for the second time in as many days yesterday, data showed as ministers continued to avoid enforcing new restrictions.