NHS staff absences due to Covid have more than tripled at acute hospital trusts in London since the beginning of the month, new figures show.
The data from NHS England shows that 3,874 NHS staff at acute trusts in the capital were absent for Covid-19 reasons on December 19, 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-19 or who were having to self-isolate.
Across England as a whole, 18,829 NHS staff at acute trusts were absent due to Covid-19 reasons on December 19, 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.
NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis said: “The NHS is on a war footing and staff are taking the fight to Omicron, by boosting hundreds of thousands of people each day, treating thousands of seriously ill Covid patients and delivering urgent care for other conditions, all while seeing a worrying, high and rising increase in absence due to Covid.
“We are once again ramping up to deal with the rise in Covid infections and, quite rightly, staff are making every possible preparation for the uncertain challenges of omicron, including recruiting thousands of nurses and reservists but, while we’ll leave no stone unturned to get the NHS battle ready, it remains the case that the best way to protect yourself and others is to follow guidance and to come forward and get your first, second and booster jabs.”
The data, published on Thursday, also showed that at Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation Trust in London, 515 staff were absent for Covid-19 reasons on December 19, up from 193 on December 12, while King’s College Hospital Foundation Trust reported 505 absences, up from 193.
Other hospital trusts in London with steep jumps in Covid-19-related absences include Imperial College (365 on December 19, up from 158 a week earlier), Barts Health (338, up from 91) and Great Ormond Street (351, up from 70).
NHS Providers chief executive, Chris Hopson, said that due to surging coronavirus case numbers the figures could get worse before they improve.
He added: “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-19 are up nearly 40 per cent, and with community infections surging ahead, that figure may well get worse before it gets better.”
If you look at the broader picture, we are busier at this time of year than we’ve ever been before
Chris Hopson, NHS Providers
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.
A total of 16,410 delays of 30 minutes or more were recorded across all acute trusts in the week to December 19, representing 20% of all arrivals.
This is down slightly from 23% of arrivals in the week to December 12.
Some 7% of arrivals last week (6,124) took more than 60 minutes to be handed over to A&E teams, down from 10% in the previous week.
A handover delay does not always mean a patient has waited in the ambulance. They may have been moved into an A&E department, but staff were not available to complete the handover.
Mr Hopson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the NHS is facing its busiest Christmas period ever, with bed occupancy rates 5% higher than last year.
He added: “If you look at the broader picture, we are busier at this time of year than we’ve ever been before.
“Our bed occupancy rate is 94.5% compared to last year’s 89%. That’s a huge difference in terms of much more busy.”
On average more than half of inpatients in England (55%) who were fit to be discharged each day last week did not leave hospital, NHS England said.
This is broadly unchanged on the average for the previous week (54%).
Mr Hopson said: “Hospital bed occupancy remains high, and despite some improvement, ambulance handover delays are a continuing cause for deep concern, reflecting wider pressure across the system.
“It’s worrying to see delayed discharges have increased again for patients who are fit to go home or to other community settings.
“The next few weeks will present a huge test for the NHS on many fronts: coping with Covid-19, handling emergencies, working on the backlog where possible, and delivering boosters.”