London hospitals face ‘wicked combination’ of high demand and staff sickness

London hospitals are facing a “wicked combination” of an “explosion” in demand and “unprecedented” staff sickness rates, a senior health service figure has warned.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers – which represents care trusts – said that, while critical care capacity has been expanded between five and seven times, hospital bosses are seeing a “continuous tsunami” of demand.

Mr Hopson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday that this is combined with sickness rates of up to 50%.

He added: “They are struggling with two things.

“The first is the explosion of demand they are seeing in seriously ill patients.

“They talk about wave after wave after wave – the word that’s often used to me is a continuous tsunami.

“We are now seeing 30%, 40% and indeed in some places 50% sickness rates as staff catch the virus or are in vulnerable groups or have to self-isolate.

“That’s unprecedented absence rate.

“So what we have got is a really wicked combination – trusts trying to deal with a lot more demand than they have ever had before with a lot fewer staff than they have had before.”

NHS Providers describes itself as the membership organisation for the NHS hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services that treat patients and service users in the NHS.

Mr Hopson said that, while extra capacity is being brought in – including 4,000 beds at the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands – hospital chief executives are concerned that it will be used up “very, very quickly”.

Professor Neil Ferguson believes the health system has the capacity to cope (House of Commons/PA)

But speaking on the same programme, Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, said he believes the health system has the capacity to cope and that the lockdown will lead to a “plateau” of case numbers.

He added: “So we are going to have a very difficult few weeks, particularly in hotspots – London for instance.

“But we think, overall, with the capacity which is rapidly being put in place across the country, that whilst the health system will be intensely stressed, particularly in areas of London, it won’t break.

“Perhaps in about three weeks we hope these current measures will start flattening that curve and start bringing numbers down.”

In a statement later on Thursday, NHS Providers said staff testing and protective equipment needed to be a top priorities.

Its deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said there was “mounting concern” among NHS staff that World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance on protective equipment was being watered down.

She called for urgent clarification about recent changes in the next 48 hours and added: “Ensuring NHS staff have confidence in the equipment they work with is an absolute priority for trust leaders.

“There are mounting concerns about the changes to the guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE), with a widespread perception among staff that the approach recommended by the World Health Organisation has in some ways been watered down.

“We know this is causing huge anxiety for frontline staff whose priority is to keep their patients and themselves safe.”