NHS staff absences linked to Covid and hospital admissions soar in the UK

UK hospitals have been hit by Covid-related staff absenteeism and hospital admissions are on the rise, according to NHS data, as official figures show one person in 25 people were infected with the virus last week.

Despite this trend, Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, insists the health service is better placed to respond to Covid increased than last winter.

Covid-related staff absenteeism across the NHS in England rose 31% week-on-week on December 26, with 24,632 staff on sick leave or self-isolating. In total, about 68,000 employees – 5% of the workforce – took sick leave that day for all sorts of reasons.

Separate data from the Office for National Statistics, released on Friday, revealed that in the week ending December 23, nearly 2.3 million people across the UK contracted the virus. It’s one in every 25 people in the UK, up from one in 45 a week earlier, while London has the highest rate, with one in 15 residents.

The comparable rate in developed countries is about one in 40.

Employee absenteeism is the highest in the north of England. In the Northwest, where Covid-related absenteeism is growing fastest, 6.2% of the workforce was out of work for any reason as of December 26.

The graph shows the absence of Covid-related NHS staff in London has increased sharply in recent weeks, although there have been signs of reversal in the past few days

In London, the area hit first by the Omicron coronavirus variant and where hospitals are under the most pressure, the problem of Covid-related absenteeism is particularly acute. Nearly 6,000 staff members at the acute hospital trustees were absent because of the virus on December 23, a fivefold increase from 1,174 staff absent at the beginning of the month. But there are signs of some respite in recent days with absenteeism dropping 25% between December 23 and December 26.

At the same time, the number of patients treated mainly for Covid in the capital nearly doubled from 850 on December 1 to 1,630 on December 28.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the NHS was facing “a double hit” of staffing reductions and a spike in Covid enrollments.

“It’s mostly a matter of staff getting sick over the next two to three weeks,” he said. “There’s not much you can do about it, you just have to weather the storm.”

But he said that in Omicron’s earliest hotspots, staffing problems could ease in time as health leaders expect the worst of the wave to hit. “We are starting to see people who have left Covid come back,” he said. “Hopefully staff levels can improve as the number of Covid cases starts to increase.”

In his New Year’s message, Johnson said: “No matter what we worry about in the weeks and months ahead, especially about Omicron and the growing number of hospitals. . . Our position on this December 31st is incomparably better than last year. ”

He added that the government had achieved its goal of giving every eligible adult in the UK a booster shot by the end of the year.

The graph shows how total ICU bed occupancy in London has fallen in recent weeks and doesn't track the increase seen last winter

Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said staff in the health service were “prepared for the worst”, adding that hospitals were “doing everything they can”. to free up hospital beds” in anticipation of more Covid hospitalizations caused by the Omicron surgery.

Bed occupancy rates in acute and general wards in UK hospitals fell from 93% on December 21 to 87% on December 28.

Professor Anthony Gordon, an intensive care consultant at St Mary’s Hospital in London, predicts the NHS “may have to limit elective care [and] capable of canceling non-emergency operations” in response to pressure from Omicron.

While the number being treated primarily for Covid remains much lower than in previous episodes, the NHS has yet to cancel most elective surgeries this time around and is facing high pressure in the future. accident and emergency departments

The graph shows that although the number of random Covid hospitalizations is increasing in London, the number of patients being treated for severe Covid is also increasing

The proportion of Covid-positive patients in London who were not receiving primary treatment for the disease rose from 18% to 33% in December, fueled by Omicron’s high transmissibility, but this conceals a sustained increase in the number of primary treatment. for Covid.

In the week to December 28, the number of “random” Covid positive patients in London increased by 396, but the number of people being treated for the disease increased by 433.

The graph illustrates that the key question is whether hospital admissions will now follow the curve of last winter or decline at a lower rate.

The number of Covid-19 patients on ventilators in London increased slightly in December but this is a much slower rate of increase than the total number of patients, suggesting a lower proportion of patients progressing to very serious conditions than in other countries. previous batch.

Dr Zudin Puthucheary, a London-based critical care consultant and member of the Intensive Care Consortium, said ICUs in the capital were “sitting and waiting” for an expected surge. mid-January.

He said plans are being made to redeploy staff “in the opposite direction” of previous batches, moving clinicians from critical care settings to general wards, where the staff are carrying the “absolute burden” of increasing hospitalizations.

Separately on Friday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved Paxlovid, a promising anti-Covid drug made by Pfizer, for use in the UK. The UK has ordered 2.75 million packs of an oral antiviral drug and plans to use it to treat elderly and vulnerable patients.

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