Staff absence due to Covid has doubled in the past fortnight at Greater Manchester hospitals, as NHS directors admit “the NHS is on a war footing”.
Just over 6,000 staff were absent, for any reason, on Boxing Day in Greater Manchester, according to the latest figures released by the NHS.
A total of 12,548 days were lost at Greater Manchester hospitals in the week leading up to Boxing Day because staff were sick or self-isolating due to Covid.
National NHS leaders have said that ‘staff are throwing everything at preparing for this next wave’, as the Omicron variant is yet to show its full impact.
The statistics issued by the health service give an update on how hospital trusts were coping with mounting pressures in the week ending in December 26.
So far, doctors have told the Manchester Evening News of how the rising coronavirus cases were causing an uptick in hospital admission.
At the same time, there has been as an increasing number of staff absences due to Covid-19.
The more than 12,000 working days lost to Covid in the region is up a 62.3 per cent, from 7,733 the week before, and a huge 111.9 per cent from 5,921 days lost a fortnight ago.
One in 11 staff members were off on December 26, for any reason – 6,076 in total.
In the meantime, doctors, nurses and more have voiced their concerns about struggling to access PCR tests, and waiting days for their results, despite being classed as essential workers.
As NHS rules dictate, they are unable to go back to work without a negative PCR test.
This week, the availability of PCR tests evaporated across the country, following ‘spikes in demand’.
This prompted one GP to share his concerns with the M.E.N. that hospitals, GP surgeries and care homes will go into ‘lockdown’ as there are ‘not enough staff members to care for patients’.
The staffing difficulties have been met by demand on NHS resources elsewhere.
One senior hospital figure said ‘absences are the thing’ causing problems, but said they had also noticed a second pattern, with high numbers of ‘incidental’ infections among people in hospital for another reason.
“We find one patient with Covid on a non-Covid ward and we have to close the whole ward.”
They said their trust’s mitigation plans were ‘holding, for now’.
One Greater Manchester source added that the region is contemplating reopening mothballed wards as national NHS chiefs announce the building of new ‘surge’ Nightingale sites. Though widespread worries remain among staff about who will work on the new wards, given the absence rate.
North West Ambulance Service has also been feeling the pressure.
Some 547 ambulances had to wait more than 30 minutes to handover patients at Greater Manchester hospitals’s A&Es last week, 13.9 per cent of the force, including 128 waiting more than an hour.
That’s the equivalent of one in seven ambulances facing a wait of more than half-an-hour outside hospitals to drop off patients.
The target is for handovers to take under 15 minutes.
The numbers are an improvement from the week prior, when 858 ambulances – almost 20 per cent of the force – waited half-an-hour or longer, and 285 waiting more than an hour.
However, waiting times for ambulances have worsened compared to the figures for the same week (ending December 27) last year.
In the equivalent week last year, 370 ambulances waited more than 30 minutes, just over 10 per cent, with 67 waiting more than an hour.
Among the reasons for the delays being faced by ambulances is the lack of space inside.
Beds are in high demand, with Greater Manchester seeing 88 per cent of its hospital beds occupied, according to the last update from the region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, in the days before Christmas.
Anything above 85 per cent is ‘extremely uncomfortable’, Greater Manchester health chief, Sir Richard Leese, has warned.
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Of the beds occupied, there is a significant proportion of patients who are dealing with ‘delays to discharge’, where they are unable to be sent home.
Delays to discharges in other parts of the hospital can make it more difficult to admit people from A&E, as medically fit people remain in beds.
On Sunday, Greater Manchester hospitals had 715 beds occupied by patients who no longer needed to be in hospital, but who hadn’t been discharged.
That was the equivalent of 12.9 per cent of the general and acute and adult critical care beds across the trust.
The figures for this week compare to 759 beds occupied on the Sunday before, or 14 per cent of beds.
Delays to discharge can happen for multiple reasons – including the impact of Covid has meant that some patients’ conditions have become more serious and they need longer recovery time in hospital; increased number of patients with complex needs so they need more support once discharged; and workforce capacity/capability to discharge (a level of seniority is required to discharge patients confidently and safely).
The reason often proffered by doctors working on the ground is the challenge of discharging people into social care, due to the sector’s own staffing crisis leaving it thousands of workers short.
Medics speaking to the M.E.N. say there is no place for patients to be safe once they are well enough to leave.
Across England, the total number of days lost due to covid staff absence increased by 42 per cent in the week ending December 26 compared to the week before, up from 124,855 to 176,914.
There has been a 96 per cent increase over the last two weeks, meaning Covid related staff absences have nearly doubled over the last two weeks.
On Boxing Day, the most recent date available, 24,632 staff were absent through Covid-19 sickness of self-isolation at acute NHS hospital trusts.
Overall staff absences increased by 9.2 per cent per day on average from 65,305 to 70,762.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “These statistics show the BMA’s repeated warnings about the impact of Omicron on the NHS workforce being realised.
“Not only are doctors incredibly worried about the rising number of people in hospital with Covid-19 – now at the highest level since early March – but also the health service’s ability to provide vital care to all patients, with more than 24,000 staff now off sick with Covid or self-isolating. That’s the equivalent of 178 staff off work at each acute trust in England.
“At the very time the NHS is standing up hundreds of extra beds in ‘Nightingale’ units to prepare for a surge in hospital admissions, the number of staff absences is rising rapidly – up 31 per cent in a week for acute trusts in England alone – and today’s figures underline the futility of increasing bed capacity with fewer people to staff it.
“Furthermore, these statistics do not take into account staff at GP practices, community hospitals or other healthcare settings, so in reality the number will be much higher – and the impact on patients much further-reaching. With a record backlog in care, we cannot afford to be losing such a high number of staff.”
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He said the government needed to prioritise NHS staff for the tests they need to show a negative result so they can continue to work, and it needed to provide them with higher grade PPE. He added that public health measures to stop the community spread of Omicron were urgently needed.
On Sunday, there were almost 1,300 fewer patients remaining in hospital who no longer met the criteria to reside compared to the same day the previous week (9,288 on December 26 down from 10,576 on December 19).
Bed occupancy has decreased with 87 per cent of adult general and acute beds occupied, down from 93 per cent the previous week.
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “We don’t yet know the full scale of rising omicron cases and how this will affect people needing NHS treatment, but having hit a ten month high for the number of patients in hospital with Covid while wrestling with sharply increasing staff absences, we are doing everything possible to free up beds and get people home to their loved ones – and in the last week hundreds more beds were freed up each day compared to the week before.
“On top of the incredible efforts made by staff to get people out of hospital safely, we are also making every possible preparation for the uncertain challenges of omicron, including setting up new Nightingale surge hubs at hospitals across the country and recruiting thousands of nurses and reservists.
“The NHS is on a war footing, and while staff remain braced for the worst, with Covid absence for NHS staff almost doubling in the past fortnight, keeping as many colleagues as possible at work on the frontline and minimising absence, will be essential in the next few weeks.
“As staff throw everything at preparing for this next wave, the public can play their part in protecting themselves by getting the first, second and booster jabs, as tens of millions of others already have.”