NHS sickness rates add to Covid crisis

Hospitals trust asks some staff to call off holidays and return to work

Friday, 24th December 2021 — By Tom Foot

prof tim orchard

Professor Tim Orchard. Photo: Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

NHS staff have been asked to call off their holidays and return to the front line as health chiefs prepare for a new winter wave of Omicron.

Patients’ planned operations are being shelved at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington and hundreds of staff are off sick with Covid-19.

Coronavirus admissions are steadily growing day by day but remain far lower than the peak of the pandemic in January earlier this year.

It is the impact of losing so many staff that is currently the main cause of concern for health chiefs. Emergency departments are already unusually stretched after a huge surge in admissions in September.

The hospital staff are also administering 1,500 booster vaccines every day while working through a huge backlog of patient appointments, including for cancer diagnoses and treatment. Volunteers are being parachuted in to help.

Professor Tim Orchard, chief executive of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which runs St Mary’s and Charing Cross hospitals, said: “We are asking staff in some areas to consider moving annual leave booked for after Christmas and into the new year or to work additional shifts. Even if severe disease continues to be more limited, a small proportion of a large number could still have a big impact on the NHS.

“We had already decided to limit non-urgent planned surgery into January and we are currently working through how much more planned care we should postpone.

“A total of 6.8 per cent of our staff are absent due to Covid or other reasons. At the peak of the second wave of hospital admissions, total staff absences were at 8 per cent.

“We are having to ask some staff to move temporarily to support areas that are especially challenged.”

The hospital had, on Wednesday, 115 Covid patients compared with around 400 on its busiest day in January earlier this year.

Hospitals are asking for donations to pay for extra refreshments, self-care gifts and even help from a clinical psychologist for staff who have seen the trauma of the crisis first-hand.

Prime minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet colleagues have all suggested further restrictions will come into force at some stage in the coming days or weeks, potentially very swiftly after Christmas. This would be a bid to slow the virus’s spread – and buy some time to get more booster jabs administered.

Hospitality venues were suffering from cancelled bookings and the loss of huge chunks of their Christmas trade as customers followed advice to prioritise their social plans.

A string of West End theatres have been shuttered in one of the busiest times of the year. Joint chief executive of West End theatre group Trafalgar Entertainment, Dame Rosemary Squire, said: “The government must act now and offer financial support and compensation to our world-beating theatre, live entertainment and hospitality industries or we will struggle to survive.”

The Omicron variant picture is of an often milder infection that still has the power to put people in hospital.

If anybody tests positive now, they face Christmas and new year in isolation. Walk-in vaccine services are running at St Mary’s, Charing Cross and Hammersmith hospitals over the festive period. First, second and booster doses for over-18s are available. See the Imperial College Healthcare website for details.

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