Urgent operations such as cardiac and cancer treatments are being delayed in hospitals as the NHS is stretched like never before, health leaders have warned.
More than 20 hospitals in England have declared critical incidents due to increasing numbers of medics being forced to isolate, putting further pressure on a service already stretched by the spike in Covid cases.
It came as a cross-party group of MPs warned of the consequences of Boris Johnson’s decision to “ride out” the Omicron wave without further restrictions, saying the backlog of almost 6 million patients on waiting lists in England would grow.
Dr Stephen Webb, president of the Intensive Care Society, told The Independent: “Staff isolation and staff illness due to Covid restricts our ability to care for other patients.
“We are hearing from our members that virtually all intensive care units (ICUs) are under strain primarily because of staffing constraints and this is resulting in many having to limit access for patients having urgent operations.
“Patients who may need an urgent procedure – say a cardiology procedure – that patient will undoubtedly wait for longer in hospital until a spot becomes available for them to be transferred to.
“That urgent treatment will be restricted because of staffing restrictions, and we have heard that is happening within intensive care units because ICUs have less staff to open beds. Those staffing shortages are not just in ICU.”
On Wednesday Chris Hopson, of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, warned the health service was “stretched like never before”. Another 194,747 infections were recorded on Wednesday, and 334 more deaths.
Education, transport and retail were also being hit, with some schools telling pupils to stay home as the Christmas holiday drew to an end.
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, told MPs that teacher absences are expected to rise further from the 8 per cent recorded before the festive break.
But Mr Johnson confirmed that there would be no tightening of restrictions on social and economic life to try to rein in the Omicron variant. And he boasted that it was his “balanced and proportionate” response to the highly contagious variant which had allowed England to “keep this country open, keep our economy moving more than any other comparable economy in Europe”.
Rules on Covid testing were relaxed, with the removal of the requirement to confirm a positive lateral flow reading with a PCR test. But the change will do little to ease the burden of self-isolation, as the seven-day minimum period always began from the moment infection was first detected.
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, on Wednesday announced a reduction from 10 to seven days, in line with England, but Downing Street played down the prospect of a further cut to five days in line with advice that it would encourage a premature return to work which could result in more infections.
Meanwhile, the requirement for vaccinated passengers to take a pre-departure test before travelling to England was removed from 7 January in recognition of the fact that Omicron is now endemic in the UK and other countries around the globe.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that an estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending 31 December, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020. One in 15 people in England had the virus, rising to one in 10 in London.
The 334 deaths was the worst of the Omicron wave and the highest since February last year, but was artificially inflated by a backlog of data from English hospitals which had gone unreported since 1 January.
The Independent has seen an internal staff message from University Hospitals Dorset this week declaring a critical incident, in which the trust said it had “very limited number of beds” and the “few beds” it does have are not appropriate for patients, leading to the cancellation of some elective operations.
Meanwhile, University Hospitals Birmingham told staff on Tuesday it has been forced to close all of its surgical theatres at Good Hope Hospital.
Birmingham Community Healthcare Foundation Trust has told patients that it cannot accept any new referrals to its physiotherapy and occupational therapy services and is cancelling non-urgent referrals due to “significant pressures in the hospital and in the community”.
One senior clinician told The Independent their trust had an increase in staff sickness by “hundreds” in just 24 hours and warned: “If the staff losses are sustained at this rate or worse accelerate, I’m not sure how we deliver anything
“Currently [we are] doing everything we can not to cancel cancer operations and we still have a few elective wards that are Covid-free but if we continue to lose staff at this rate, it may happen.”
Mr Johnson told MPs that hospital admissions were “doubling around every nine days” and the UK was experiencing the fastest growth in Covid cases it had ever known.
But he insisted that plan B measures – including the wider use of masks, Covid passes for mass-audience events and work from home guidance – were “helping to take the edge off the Omicron wave”.
Current measures were “balanced and proportionate ways of ensuring we can live with Covid without letting our guard down”, he told MPs.
And he said he believed that, by the planned review of plan B on 26 January, “life will return to something much much closer to normality [and] it won’t be necessary to have the restrictions that we currently have in place”.
But Labour MP Afzal Khan told him England was in “an unsustainable situation”.
“Last night, 17 hospitals across Greater Manchester announced they were suspending non-urgent surgery due to the impact of Covid-19 and at least 10 trusts across England have already been forced to declare critical incidents since Christmas,” Mr Khan told the House of Commons.
“Last week the PM said he hoped we could ride out this wave but I don’t think our hard-working NHS staff or the government’s scientific advisers would agree.”
Downing Street insisted that declarations by trusts of critical incidents “are not a good indicator necessarily of how the NHS is performing” as they might last in some cases for as little as a few hours.
But Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson acknowledged that the NHS was facing “a challenging number of weeks” and said the possibility of additional measures had not been ruled out as it was not yet known whether the UK or England had yet reached the peak of the Omicron wave.
“It’s too early to judge what the full impact of Omicron will be, so it’s right that we keep measures under review as the public would expect,” said the spokesperson. “But as it stands – as the prime minister has been clear – we believe that we have the right package of proportionate measures in place.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “While there is no doubt January will be a tough month for staff, the NHS has tried and tested plans in place to handle increased pressure and despite these anecdotal reports, services will continue to prioritise people with cancer, a suspected stroke or heart attack.
“The NHS will continue Covid and non-Covid care so anyone who needs care should get in touch with the NHS as they usually would so they can get the support they need.”
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