Covid-19: Military steps in to support NHS as staff absences jump 59% in a week

·6-min read
Data shows staff absences due to Covid have risen 59% in a week (PA) (PA Wire)
Data shows staff absences due to Covid have risen 59% in a week (PA) (PA Wire)

The armed forces are supporting the NHS in various parts of the UK as new data shows hospital staff absences due to Covid have risen 59% in a week.

Some 200 military personnel have been drafted in to help the NHS in London while around 150 staff will support the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) from next week by driving ambulances, helping lift patients and offering life support.

It comes as a system-wide major incident was declared in Northamptonshire by health, public and emergency service leaders due to Covid-19.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

Northamptonshire Local Resilience Forum, which is made up of NHS organisations, local authorities, Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service and Northamptonshire Police, issued the alert due to “rising demand on services and staffing levels”.

Chair of the forum, chief fire officer Darren Dovey, said: “Declaring this incident is a necessary step to make sure we are able to share resources where necessary which is increasingly important as more staff need to self-isolate.”

In December, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan declared a major incident due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant across the capital.

Meanwhile, NHS England data shows 39,142 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England were absent for Covid-19 reasons on January 2, up 59% on the previous week (24,632) and more than three times the number at the start of December (12,508).

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

The figures suggest one in 25 (4% of) NHS staff working in acute hospital trusts are off sick or self-isolating due to Covid.

This 4% is based on NHS Digital monthly workforce data for September for acute trusts (the most recent available).

The latest data shows that in north-west England, 7,338 NHS staff at hospital trusts were absent due to Covid-19 on January 2, up 85% week-on-week from 3,966, while in north-east England and Yorkshire there were 8,788 absences, more than double the number a week earlier (4,179).

Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them

Professor Stephen Powis

In London, absences were up 4% week-on-week, from 4,580 to 4,765.

Overall, there were 82,384 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England who were absent for all sickness reasons on January 2, including self-isolation and mental health reasons, up 21% on the previous week (68,082) and up 37% from the start of December (60,136).

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said rising Covid-19 cases were “piling even more pressure” on hospital trust workers.

He 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.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

“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.

“Those staff are stepping up as they always do; answering a quarter more 111 calls last week than the week before, dealing with an increasing number of ambulance call-outs, and working closely with colleagues in social care to get people out of hospital safely.”

Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing’s director for England, said nurses found themselves “spread thinner and thinner, but they can’t keep spinning plates indefinitely… this situation is simply not safe.”

The Armed Forces have already assisted with the vaccine rollout (PA) (PA Wire)
The Armed Forces have already assisted with the vaccine rollout (PA) (PA Wire)

According to the Health Service Journal (HSJ), staff absences across the entire NHS, including mental health trusts and other areas, for any reason including Covid-19, may be as high as 120,000.

Earlier, Air Commodore John Lyle told BBC Breakfast the military was on hand to offer its support.

He said: “We can’t really forecast too far ahead, but certainly, throughout this current surge, we know that it’s particularly difficult in London at the minute but we are aware that this is impacting all across the United Kingdom.

“And so we remain in discussions and there are a number of areas where we’re looking at the potential for more assistance.

“So, over the coming weeks or months, I think we’ll learn a lot from how the progress is made through London and potentially there could be further military support required in other areas.”

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the deployment in London includes 40 military medics and 160 general duty personnel to help fill gaps caused by absences of NHS staff.

Overall, the armed forces have around 8,000 medical personnel which includes nurses, GPs, dentists, physios and vets.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

Speaking to Sky News earlier, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the BMA, said “we have never known this level of staff absence before”.

He added: “Every winter of course, the NHS has additional pressures, but I don’t think anyone who’s worked in the NHS has experienced this level of absence of their colleagues and we’re feeling it in very real time because doctors and nurses and healthcare workers are having to cover for their absent colleagues – that’s adding additional, exceptional strain.”

Number 10 insisted that Boris Johnson still sees no need for further Covid restrictions in England despite rising staff absences.

A spokesman said ministers would ensure the health service had the support it needed, adding that the Covid booster jab programme meant there was not the same level of pressure on intensive care units seen in previous waves.

“The Prime Minister has been clear on controls. Plan B is balanced and proportionate to respond to the Omicron variant. It is continuing to help reduce its spread. But the important thing is the booster programme and the effectiveness it has in stopping the disease,” the spokesman said.

He added: “The military have helped out throughout the pandemic and they will do so again.

“We know that staff absences are contributing to the pressure the NHS is currently facing. Of course we will continue to take appropriate measures to ensure the NHS has the support they need.”

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