The number of NHS staff off sick in London has more than doubled in a week, as official figures showed a third of health service workers are yet to get the booster jab.
NHS leaders are becoming increasingly concerned over staff absence rates in the capital, after they rose from 1,900 on Sunday to 4,700 on Sunday – a 140 per cent increase. If that growth rate continues, one in three staff in London could be absent by the end of the month.
The rise is outpacing the increase in Covid patients in London’s hospitals, with numbers rising 30 per cent in a week.
There are similar fears about staffing across the country, with Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing’s England director, warning that it could be “catastrophic” if staff absence levels continue to rise.
“The workforce is already short, the workforce is already exhausted – mentally and physically – so the prospect of that must fill everyone on the frontline, and the public, with real concern,” she told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.
NHS England insisted that 1,025,985 staff have had their booster as of Saturday, representing 80 per cent of those who are currently eligible.
But when compared to the percentage of first and second doses administered, 93.7 per cent and 90.9 per cent, the booster uptake appears to be significantly further behind.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said on Sunday: “We can’t wait for hospitalisations to go through the roof before we do something about it, because by then it’s too late.”
The figures come after Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, refused to rule out further restrictions to control the omicron wave.
When asked if he would rule out a circuit-breaker or new restrictions before Christmas, Mr Javid said on Sunday: “There are no guarantees in this pandemic, I don’t think.
“At this point we just have to keep everything under review.”
‘Not just the increase in the Covid caseload that’s the problem’
On December 15, the latest available official data, 805 Covid patients were admitted to hospital in England. On the same date last year, 1,730 patients were admitted.
But health leaders have stressed that the NHS is under significantly more pressure this time around due to the booster campaign, increased demand in emergency care and tackling the backlog.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said the NHS is also now dealing with “significant” staff absences.
“We are already seeing NHS staff shortages in hotspots like London, with worrying increases in the number of staff having to take time off work due to Covid-19 self-isolation or sickness,” she said.
“This is expected to rise in the weeks ahead. The impact on the workloads of remaining staff – who are already working incredibly hard given the huge demands on the service – is a major concern.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday that Covid cases in London hospitals are around 1,500 – up 30 per cent in a week, compared to a national average of four per cent.
But he added: “It’s not just the increase in Covid caseload that’s a problem, it’s also the fact that we’ve got staff absences going up.
“So if you look at London, NHS staff absences, they’re up 140 per cent, from 1,900 on Sunday to 4,700 on Thursday, so it’s gone up very dramatically, very quickly.”
NHS Providers, which represents NHS leaders, said it has been calling for a fully-funded workforce plan long before the winter.
“Without the right staff in the right places with the right skills, we knew the pressures on the NHS would be difficult this winter,” Ms Cordery said.
NHS ‘brutally exposed’ to rising omicron case rates
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association council chairman, said the NHS has been left “brutally exposed to suffer the consequences of surging case rates,” without additional restrictions in place.
“Amid the surging case-rate, driven by the hugely transmissible omicron variant, doctors are not only incredibly worried about the potential impact this could have on hospitalisations, but also about what it would mean for patient care across the NHS if we have vast swathes of staff off sick with the virus,” he said.
“We’re already seeing services being affected by staff absences, and these estimates show it could get far, far worse.”
Dr Nagpaul warned staff shortages will lead to appointments and treatments being cancelled. It could also impact the NHS’ capacity to fulfill the booster rollout.