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NHS bosses fear lack of coronavirus tests is driving rise in staff sickness

Exclusive: Leaked email reveals national effort to pinpoint cause of the increase after medics forced to self-isolate

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Thursday 17 September 2020 20:46 BST
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A leaked email suggests sickness rates are rising across the NHS
A leaked email suggests sickness rates are rising across the NHS (Getty Images)

Sickness levels among NHS staff are rising nationally with senior officials worried the increase is being driven by the shortage in coronavirus testing, a leaked email has revealed.

In recent days doctors and nurses have reported being forced to stay home from work and self-isolate for days because they cannot get a test. In some cases staff have been offered tests hundreds of miles from where they live.

Now an email to NHS bosses has revealed the scale of the impact the lack of tests is having.

The message, sent on Tuesday by an NHS England regional workforce director, revealed the concerns were being discussed by NHS England’s deputy chief people officer, Professor Em Wilkinson-Brice, at the national incident board overseeing the NHS response to Covid-19.

The email said: “Over the last two weeks for all but one system sickness has been increasing, and there is a discussion nationally … about whether this is due to inability to access testing.”

NHS workforce directors were asked to respond by the end of Thursday with evidence and thoughts on the rise in sickness and testing issues.

Ensuring doctors and nurses can get tested quickly is crucial for hospitals to ensure they can maintain services. At the height of the pandemic hospitals were major sources of infection with between 10 and 22 per cent of all hospitalised Covid-19 patients contracting the virus on the wards.

On the same day as the email was sent out, NHS England’s chief people officer Prerana Issar told a conference organised by the Health Service Journal that she was not hearing of any problems with staff getting tested.

She told the conference: “Testing [for staff] is a key part of the strategy, of course, of the response to Covid.  

“I am not hearing right now that there’s a problem with staff getting tested. Sickness absence due to Covid, which was high when we had less testing close to the beginning of the pandemic, has come right down.”

Earlier this week NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said the health service was seeing staff struggling to get tests and in some cases this was also affecting patients who were having treatments delayed due to being unable to get tested.

One doctor told The Independent they were offered a test 200 miles away, and in total had to wait six days before being able to get a test. In another case a surgeon was forced to cancel operations and stay home.

Some hospitals are running their own tests for staff while others are using the centralised Lighthouse Laboratory system set up by ministers at the end of April.

In the House of Commons on Thursday, Matt Hancock said extra funding for the NHS would help it to operate safely in a “world where Covid is still at large”.

He said: “I can tell the house that we've allocated a further £2.7bn to the NHS to support it during the winter months.

“This funding, in addition to the extra funding for PPE and testing, will help the NHS with the vital task of operating safely in a world in which Covid is still at large.

“And the task which is critical of working through the backlog of elective work that was inevitably caused by the first peak.”

NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care were contacted for comment.

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