10,000 London hospital staff off a day during Omicron wave

·5-min read

About 10,000 London hospital staff a day have been absent from work as the full impact of the pandemic and winter sickness on the NHS was revealed.

As 200 military personnel began being deployed across the capital’s hospitals to plug vacancies, the full scale of the staffing crisis hitting medics trying to treat a deluge of patients with the Omicron variant emerged.

A total of 70,175 sick days were claimed in London’s 22 frontline NHS trusts in the seven days to Sunday – of which 35,835 were due to Covid illness or isolation.

Nationally there were more than 562,000 absences in the most recent week as about 10,000 more staff a day called in sick, compared with the previous week, according to NHS England data.

The number of absences began falling on December 30 but are thought to have worsened since Sunday, with the Health Service Journal reporting an increase from 82,000 to 92,000 hospital vacancies by Wednesday, and a total of 120,000 across the wider NHS.

In London, the worst affected trusts were Guy’s and St Thomas’s, with 971 staff absent on Sunday (including 454 due to Covid), Barts Health with 822 absences (334 due to Covid), Imperial College Healthcare with 744 (394 due to Covid) and King’s College hospitals with 730 (438 due to Covid).

On Friday morning members of the armed forces were being sent to hospitals including five combat military technicians to the Royal London, in Whitechapel, and 20 personnel to the Royal Free, in Hampstead.

Five personnel each were due this afternoon at Chelsea and Westminster and West Middlesex hospitals. London North West Healthcare, which runs Northwick Park and Ealing hospitals, was expecting 10.

Whipps Cross and Newham, both part of Barts Health NHS Trust, are due to receive 10 soldiers each on Monday.

It is understood that there are 40 teams of five military personnel to be distributed across the capital for three weeks.

A small number were performing medical roles while the majority were helping with other essential tasks such as acting as porters and providing meals.

Military assistance was previously provided to London hospitals during earlier peak waves of the pandemic.

Roger Chinn, chief medical officer at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust, which includes West Middlesex hospital, said: “We are delighted to welcome the ten military personnel to our trust today who will work alongside our dedicated staff as they respond to the demands brought by Covid-19 and winter.

“Their clinical and logistical expertise will be invaluable as we navigate this period. I want to offer my sincere thanks to all.”

Daniel Waldron, director of people at Barts Health NHS Trust, said: “We’re grateful to the army for this additional support. While our staff have been doing an incredible job at running our hospitals and safely managing the pressures we’re under, extra pairs of hands are always welcome.”

Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, 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.”

It came as Mayor Sadiq Khan and Minister for London Paul Scully urged Londoners to continue to get vaccinated to help ease the intense pressure on hospitals.

Almost two million jabs have been given in the capital in the last month but one in seven adult Londoners are completely unvaccinated.

London has the lowest first jab take-up rate of any English region in virtually every age group, and is also the worst in the country for boosters among 18-24 year olds and for all adults aged 35 and older.

Health chiefs said the majority of patients in intensive care are not fully vaccinated. By last night, there were more than 4,000 Covid patients in London hospitals but there were hopes that the number of daily admissions was starting to decline.

Mr Khan said more than 86 per cent of adult Londoners had received at least one dose, with more than 15.7m first, second or booster doses administered.

He said: “With Covid-19 rates still at record levels and the NHS under pressure, it’s vital that we continue to do all we can to vaccinate Londoners.

“I urge anyone who has not yet had their booster or is still waiting to take their first or second doses to book your appointment as soon as possible to help yourself, your loved ones and the NHS.”

Government minister Mr Scully said the vaccine was the “best weapon” against Covid.

He told Sky News: “When you talk about armed forces around hospitals, they are not sitting there in combats…it’s more people helping out the undoubted pressures on the NHS and that’s why we want people to get out and get vaccinated and get boosted because that remains our best weapon against the pressures on the NHS and against Covid as we learn to live with Covid.”

Asked on LBC Radio whether the Omicron wave appeared to be easing in London, he added: “It’s looking encouraging, the trend at the moment, but clearly we still need to be on our guard because there is still pressure on the NHS in London.”

Martin Machray, executive director of performance at NHS London, said: “Covid is continuing to have a big impact in our capital - high daily case rates and the risks of serious illness remain, with the majority of Covid patients in intensive care not being fully vaccinated.”

Professor Kevin Fenton, London regional director of public health, said: “You are up to eight times more likely to end up in hospital as a result of Covid-19 if you are unvaccinated.”

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