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Tens of thousands of NHS staff off sick because of Covid-19, data reveals

Exclusive: Almost half of all staff absence linked to coronavirus in parts of northern England

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Saturday 31 October 2020 21:00 GMT
Health leaders have said they are “deeply concerned” by Covid-linked NHS staff absences
Health leaders have said they are “deeply concerned” by Covid-linked NHS staff absences (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of NHS staff are off sick or self-isolating because of coronavirus, according to data shared with The Independent as the second wave grows.

In some parts of northern England, more than 40 per cent – in some cases almost 50 per cent – of all staff absences are linked to Covid-19, heaping pressure on already stretched hospitals trying to cope with a surge in virus patients.

The problem has sparked more calls for wider testing of NHS staff from hospital leaders and nursing unions who warned safety was being put at risk because of short staffing on wards.

Across England, more than 76,200 NHS staff were absent from work on Friday – equivalent to more than 6 per cent of the total workforce. This included 25,293 nursing staff and 3,575 doctors.

More than a third of Friday’s total, 27,136, were off work because they were either infected with coronavirus or forced to self-isolate.

In total 9,137 nurses were off work because of Covid, along with 7,273 other clinical staff such as care assistants. Also hit by Covid-19 were 2,000 doctors and 1,580 allied health professionals such as physiotherapists and paramedics.

In the northwest region, almost 17,000 staff were absent, with 7,459 linked to Covid, 44 per cent of the total. This was mirrored in Lancashire, South Cumbria, Greater Manchester, the northeast and Yorkshire, where Covid related absences were all more than 40 per cent.

In Nottingham, almost 48 per cent of staff absences were linked to Covid, with 1,300 off work.

These absences come on top of an existing 100,000 vacancies for NHS roles, including almost 40,000 nurse vacancies before the pandemic.

In some hospitals, the shortages of staff in areas including intensive care and surgery mean while physical beds may be available there isn’t the workforce to look after patients. Some staff such as those in high risk groups or with medical conditions are also being kept away from Covid-19 patients, adding strain on other staff.

Alison Leary, professor of healthcare and workforce modelling at London South Bank University, told The Independent the data was not surprising.

She said: “Without a skilled workforce there is no safe healthcare. Urgent action is needed.”

She added: “The work we have been doing has shown greater levels of insomnia and lower wellbeing scores in mass redeployment plus more unpaid overtime in those who were keeping services going.

“We have been tracking much higher intention to leave rates. The response at the start of the pandemic was necessary but not sustainable. There needs to be a much more sustainable approach to taking care of the workforce including leveraging additional temporary supply.”

One doctor said in an intensive care unit in the northwest, staff ratios in intensive care were dropping from one nurse to every patient to one nurse for every four patients, with the unit 30 nurses down.

Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing said: “As the beds fill up, we are deeply concerned about where the nursing staff to treat the patients will come from.

“Simply moving nurses from their regular roles to care for Covid-19 patients adds even greater pressure to a workforce that is already on its knees. This along with having to rely on cancelling operations means the reality is that patient safety could be put at risk.

“No one in the nursing profession wants to take time off due to ill health caused by work – they want to do their job and they must be supported to do so.

“We need regular testing where and when it is needed that is matched with a rapid delivery of results. There must now be accountability for safe levels of staffing so nursing staff can get back to work delivering the care patients need.”

The NHS in England has said it will start piloting regular testing of staff in areas where coronavirus is widespread but full-scale testing is yet to be rolled out. The government has been aiming to expand testing to more than 500,000 a day by the end of October.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said the statistics on staff absence “mark a serious escalation of Covid-related workforce pressures.”

He added: “Trust leaders are only too aware that the sustained physical, psychological and emotional pressure on staff is threatening to push them beyond their limits. They now face the added challenges of winter and trying to recover services disrupted by the pandemic while coping with a second surge in cases of Covid-19.”

He emphasised the need for wider testing of NHS staff saying: “High staff absence rates inevitably make the job harder for those who remain. A key factor in this is testing. It’s important that staff and their families have access to regular, reliable tests with a quick turnaround to ensure avoidable absences are kept to an absolute minimum.

“While it is good to hear that overall testing capacity is increasing, we are still waiting to hear the government’s long term approach to regular staff testing.”

An NHS England spokesperson said: “Staff absences are lower now than between April and July but, as you would expect, where community infections are high there will be an impact on the NHS and staff which is why it is vital that everyone follows the measures put in place locally as well as washing their hands, covering their face and maintaining social distancing.

“Additional asymptomatic testing of front line NHS staff is also being made available in areas where there are very high levels of community infection, while local areas have contingency plans in place to respond to a second wave.”

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