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NHS staff absences in London hospitals have doubled in a week as more workers are forced to self-isolate over COVID.
The data from NHS England shows that 3,874 NHS staff at acute trusts in the capital were absent for COVID reasons on 19 December, more than double the 1,540 a week earlier and more than three times the 1,174 at the start of the month.
The total includes staff who were ill with COVID or who were having to self-isolate.
Across England as a whole, 18,829 NHS staff at acute trusts were absent due to COVID reasons on 19 December, up 54% from 12,240 a week earlier and up 51% from 12,508 at the start of the month.
The new figures come as the Omicron variant continues to cause a surge in cases, with recorded case rates of COVID across the UK rising above 100,000 on Wednesday for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Reports published on Thursday showed that Omicron was milder than the Delta variant and was less likely to cause severe illness.
But the higher transmissibility of the variant means that there could be more people who suffer more serious symptoms at the same time, putting hospitals at more pressure during the winter months.
The data on staff absences, published on Thursday, showed that at Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation Trust in London, 515 staff were absent for COVID reasons on 19 December, up from 193 on 12 December, while King’s College Hospital Foundation Trust reported 505 absences, up from 193.
Other hospital trusts in London with steep jumps in COVID-related absences include Imperial College (365 on 19 December, up from 158 a week earlier), Barts Health (338, up from 91) and Great Ormond Street (351, up from 70).
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The NHS England data also showed that one in five patients waited at least half an hour to be handed over from ambulance teams to A&E staff at hospitals in England last week.
University Hospitals Birmingham reported the highest number of ambulance handover delays of more than 30 minutes in the week to 19 December (760), followed by Barking, Havering & Redbridge University Hospitals (523), North West Anglia (489), University Hospitals of Leicester (449) and University Hospitals Bristol & Weston (440).
A total of 16,410 delays of 30 minutes or more were recorded across all acute trusts in the week to 19 December, representing 20% of all arrivals – down slightly from 23% of arrivals in the week to 12 December.
Health secretary Sajid Javid acknowledged that staff absences due to COVID were adding to pressures on the NHS but said the easing of self-isolation rules from 10 days to seven would help.
“The NHS workforce was already under pressure before Omicron came along. There is increased pressure in many workforces at the moment, especially if someone needs to isolate if they have a positive case,” he told broadcasters.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said the service is preparing to expand capacity in case a “surge” of healthcare is needed, but it will be able to manage increased hospital cases.
Hopson said the NHS is facing its busiest Christmas period ever, with bed occupancy rates 5% higher than last year – adding that figures could get worse before they improve.
He said: “These figures show how Omicron is having a tangible real-time impact on a service that was already operating beyond full stretch, through increased staff absences.
“This is a big worry for trust leaders who are doing all they can to support colleagues at this very challenging time.
“Absences due to COVID are up nearly 40%, and with community infections surging ahead, that figure may well get worse before it gets better.”
The data comes as Boris Johnson has been facing calls to outline his post-Christmas COVID strategy for England, with leaders in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland having all announced new restrictions to tackle the Omicron variant.
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