Ambulance service may be ‘engulfed’ by Omicron crisis as hundreds of staff off sick

Exclusive: London Ambulance Service chief ‘severely worried’ about pressure ahead of January Covid peak

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Friday 17 December 2021 20:12
<p>The London Ambulance Service Trust was down by almost 100 ambulances on Thursday evening and Friday due to staff sickness</p>

The London Ambulance Service Trust was down by almost 100 ambulances on Thursday evening and Friday due to staff sickness

London’s ambulance service is in the midst of a severe crisis, with 100 emergency service vehicles taken off the road for two days in a row due to hundreds of staff being unable to work because of Covid, The Independent can reveal.

The growing Omicron wave has started to cripple parts of the NHS and the capital, which is currently the epicentre of the new wave, could see its already under-pressure ambulance service overwhelmed, healthcare workers were warned on Friday.

Details of a staff briefing ahead of the weekend, leaked to The Independent, have revealed the London Ambulance Service Trust was down by almost 100 ambulances on Thursday evening and Friday due to staff sickness.

Latest figures show 26,608 more Covid infections have been identified in London.

A staff member who was at the briefing with health leaders on Friday morning said attendees were told “we’re going to be engulfed” and that the service would have to employ different tactics to deal with the Omicron wave.

The London Ambulance Service (LAS) is now in talks with the London Fire Brigade (LFB) and then Metropolitan Police to get assistance with driving ambulances to free up their clinicians. However, on Friday the Fire Brigades Union warned the LFB has been left with “unprecedented” staff shortages, leading to 40 fire engines being unavailable on Thursday evening.

During the briefing, figures revealed the LAS Trust has 353 staff off due to Covid – a rise from the 214 not working because of the virus last week. Overall there are 832 staff off sick, out of its total workforce of 10,951.

The trust told The Independent it had 95 vehicles off the road on Friday morning and 97 not in use on Thursday evening due to staff sickness.

On Wednesday, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned the NHS faced “substantial” staffing gaps over the next few weeks, as thousands of staff were reported to be off sick with Covid nationally.

According to the LAS briefing, the ambulance service triggered a “purple” alert on Thursday night, meaning it was experiencing its highest level of pressure and according to staff, calls were being held for as long as 11 hours.

In a comment to The Independent, chief executive for LAS, Daniel Elkeles said: “Recognising how busy we have been for so many months, the record number of Covid cases over the last few days and increasing rates of staff sickness and isolation, I am severely worried about what this means for us during the rest of the month and as we move into January, when we expect Omicron to peak’.”

The news comes following months of increased pressures for ambulance services nationally. Last month the South Central Ambulance Service made a plea for military support. The Independent asked LAS if it was considering asking for military aid but it said it had not yet requested its support.

LAS – as with most of the ambulance trusts in England – has been on Opel Four, or “black alert”, since the summer amid rising demand and increased delays handing patients over to busy A&Es.

Last winter, during the Delta wave, LAS suffered very high levels of demand, with daily calls reaching around 8,000 to 8,500 a day.

The Independent understands the service received 7,000 calls to 999 last Friday. It might usually receive around 5,500 calls during this time of year.

A weekly briefing from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine recently revealed during the first week of December, 1,642 ambulance hours were lost nationwide due to delays in handing over patients to hospitals.

The warning over ambulance pressures in the capital comes after The Independent revealed London NHS leaders have been warned hospital admissions are likely to double by the new year due to Omicron and that all new cases of Covid are now being treated as the new variant.

Latest NHS data on Covid admissions showed on Tuesday the daily number of patients admitted in hospital jumped by 34 per cent compared to 7 December, with London hospitals reporting the highest increase in admissions.

An LAS spokesperson said: “Our staff and volunteers are working tirelessly and doing everything they can to reach those who need us in the most challenging of circumstances. We don’t yet know how many people will need hospital care because of Omicron, so we are taking rapid steps now to ensure that everyone who needs emergency care over winter can get it in the right place at the right time.

“Londoners can help us by going to NHS 111 online first when it’s not an emergency, or by speaking with a pharmacist for non-urgent advice.”

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