NHS told to prepare for ‘new and significant threat’ of Omicron

Plans laid out by the NHS include 24/7 vaccine clinics and the option to discharge medically fit patients to hotels.

Nurses work in the ICU at St George’s Hospital in Tooting (PA)
Nurses work in the ICU at St George’s Hospital in Tooting (PA)

The NHS can run 24/7 vaccine clinics and discharge some patients to hotels under plans set out by health leaders.

The health service has been put on its highest level of emergency preparedness as it sets itself to tackle the “new and significant” threat posed by the Omicron variant.

The health service in England declared a “Level 4 National Incident”, which means that trusts will not have autonomy to guide the response in their local areas and central NHS will lead the charge.

(PA Graphics)

Health leaders said that the emergence of the variant requires an “extraordinary response” from the NHS.

A new letter from health bosses states that the NHS will deliver “more vaccines over the coming weeks than ever before” which might include 24/7 vaccine clinics “where relevant for the local community”.

Vaccine sites should operate 12 hours a day “as standard” seven days a week, while some GP appointments will need to be postponed as the NHS prioritises the vaccination programme.

NHS England said pop-up sites could include trucks and buses in parks, cathedrals, football stadiums and leisure centres.

Temporary buildings including portacabins and tents are “ready to be dispatched to extend existing sites and support with queues”, it added.

But the letter warns: “Even with the additional protection that vaccine boosters will give, the threat from Omicron remains serious.”

It adds that the number of people requiring care could be “significant over the coming period” as it set out steps for the NHS to prepare for a fresh wave of cases.

This includes discharging medically fit patients to hotels and ramping up the use of private hospitals.

Pressures in the social care system mean that many patients can usually be left in hospital while social care packages are arranged.

But the NHS has ordered hospitals to free up as many beds as possible, which could include discharging fit patients to hotels to wait for social care support to be put in place.

Health leaders have also been ordered to make “full use of non-acute beds in the local health and care system” including the use of beds in hospices and private hospitals.

They have also been told to expand the use of “virtual wards”.

NHS England has just announced it will return to its highest level of emergency preparedness: Level 4 National Incident. This means the NHS response to Omicron will be a coordinated as a national effort, rather than led by individual trust

Sajid Javid

Hospital bosses have been asked to “surge test”, including testing oxygen supplies, and “learn the lessons from previous waves of Covid-19, and making preparations to have the capacity in place to meet a potentially similar challenge this winter”.

Trusts have been ordered to maintain mental health, learning disability and autism services.

Meanwhile, they have been told to prioritise pre-planned care for “highest clinical priority patients” – which includes those with cancer and those who have been waiting the longest.

The letter says that services should be maintained “as much as possible”, but recognises that some staff may need to be redeployed to support vaccination efforts.

And plans to employ more staff should be accelerated – including asking international nurses to come to work in the UK sooner where possible.

(PA Graphics)

The letter, penned by NHS England’s chief executive Amanda Pritchard and national medical director Professor Stephen Powis concludes: “The past two years have arguably been the most challenging in the history of the NHS, but staff across the NHS have stepped up time and time again to do the very best for the nation – expanding and flexing services to meet the changing demands of the pandemic; introducing new treatments, new services and new pathways to respond to the needs of patients with Covid-19 and those without; pulling out all the stops to recover services that have been disrupted, whilst rolling out the largest and fastest vaccination programme in our history.

“The Omicron variant presents a new and significant threat, and the NHS must once again rise to the national mission to protect as many people as possible through the vaccination programme whilst also now taking steps to prepare for and respond to this threat.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons on Monday afternoon: “NHS England has just announced it will return to its highest level of emergency preparedness: Level 4 National Incident.

“This means the NHS response to Omicron will be a coordinated as a national effort, rather than led by individual trusts.”

It comes after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the NHS is “once again facing a rising challenge” and thanked health staff for their efforts.

He tweeted: “NHS staff have worked with skill, integrity and determination through very difficult circumstances for a long time.

“As millions come for boosters and pressures increase on the NHS we are once again facing a rising challenge.

“A profound thank you for all you are doing.”

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the new guidance “gives an indication of what a monumental effort this will be”.

He said: “It will be vital in the coming weeks to maximise Covid-19 treatment for patients at highest risk, and to ensure sufficient capacity in hospital and community settings.

“We note and welcome the new discharge task force, the prominence given to ambulance services, and the emphasis on maintaining access to community-based mental health, learning disability and autism services.

“It is also right to maintain a relentless focus on patient safety, while doing all we can to support our staff.”

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