The NHS faces “disaster” this winter amid fears of a “mass exodus” of staff facing burnout from the Covid frontline.
Experts told MPs on Tuesday that medics exhausted by the pandemic, ongoing austerity and seasonal pressures mean the NHS is headed for a perfect storm this winter.
It came as the UK recorded a further 174 Covid deaths – the highest daily figure since March 12 – and 30,838 new cases.
Figures show that mental health absences among NHS staff have been rising fast in recent months.
Ongoing Covid measures – such as face guards – the pressure of spiralling waiting lists and chronic stress from tackling the pandemic day after day are thought to be taking their toll.
Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Covid heard there were 13,000 NHS staff off work because of mental health issues in May – a 55% increase on the previous year, according to FirstCare.
The body, which monitors absences in the health service, said the figure was the same for June, which was a 42% increase on the year before.
“From April onwards we’ve seen a significant rise in mental health cases, and it shows no sign of stopping,” said Steve Carter, director of FirstCare. “We need to address the mental health issue quickly if we are to get through the winter.”
Professor Stephanie Snow, speaking for the NHS Voices of Covid-19 project, said NHS staff feel “very nervous”.
“They’re worried about losing more colleagues,” she said. “There is a real sense of fear about a mass exodus of health professionals leaving because of their own ill health – many say they simply can’t face working in the health service anymore.”
She added frontline staff were “apprehensive” and “feel very uncertain about meeting the challenges ahead”.
“As one interviewee put it, it feels like we’re in winter already,” she said. “Their concerns are that unvaccinated patients are still getting ill and need ICU care and although the numbers are smaller than last winter’s peak, they are still rising.
“They also worry about the pressures of looking after patients with long Covid, particularly in primary care. And I think this is what is causing the most anxiety.
“So for example, waiting lists are very long and the backlog of treatments has built up. And there are still the long-term pressures that staff are working through before the pandemic.
“So for example, the pressure on emergency departments, the underfunding in areas of mental health, workforce shortages – all of these sort of longer, chronic, perennial problems have all fed into the way in which the pandemic has exacerbated those.”
Dr Elaine Kinsella, a chartered psychologist at the University of Limerick, said her studies comparing UK healthcare staff with Ireland’s found “levels of anxiety burnouts, post traumatic stress symptoms” to be much higher, and with many workers showing “quite clinically significant levels of anxiety”.
Chair of the APPG on Covid Layla Moran said the Government must do more to ease the strain on staff and properly fund services tackling the treatment backlog.
She said: “Hospital admissions are exponentially higher compared to this time last year when we were weeks away from a winter lockdown.
“With experts describing staff shortages, workers ‘battered by the system’ and an expected surge in seasonal flu, we should be extremely worried about a potential disaster for the NHS this winter.
“The government must urgently increase resources for the NHS and outline how they intend to improve conditions and address the mental health crisis facing healthcare workers.”