The rapid increase in recent days is illustrated by the NHS internal monitoring figures seen by HSJ.
Absences linked to Covid in the capital increased by 140%, from 1,926 on Sunday 12 December to 4,695 on Thursday 16 December (see graph on the left).
If the daily growth rate of around 20% continued, one in ten would be turned off for covid-related reasons on Christmas Day and about one in three on New Years Eve.
5.5% of London NHS staff were absent on Thursday – for reasons related to covid or other reasons – up from 3.8% on Sunday. Thursday’s rate was last reached in late January, shortly after the peak of last winter’s covid wave.
Admissions of covid-positive patients to London hospitals rose 42% last week, with the growth rate accelerating every day. NHS leaders fear the variant and its impact on families, caregivers and contacts threaten to undermine services even before the peaks of the omicron wave, expected in January.
The workforce is also strained by the need to staff a huge expansion of the covid vaccination campaign, which the government says is the “national mission” and top priority of the service.
Although London bears the brunt of the Omicron wave, trusts across the country are making plans to deal with a surge in staff absences. A national NHS leader said he was working on a 20 percent staff absence basis, another added that 30 percent was their worst case scenario.
A managing director of trust in the north of England said HSJ this morning: âModeling nationally and locally paints a pretty grim picture. The problem is, it’s based on assumptions that don’t hold true in practice (yet!). [We are] watch the numbers climb right now. We’re about 7 percent [staff absence] but slowly increasing.
When asked about the data, NHS England stressed guidelines published this week who called on trusts to prepare for pressures on the workforce, including to “consider emergency options for significant staff absences to ensure essential services are maintained.”
NHS England London said: ‘The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly in London and it affects all Londoners, including NHS staff, resulting in higher levels of staff absences and teams working hard to minimize any impact of that and to work flexibly during this time. Londoners should continue to seek healthcare when they need it and can help us by going to the NHS111 online first when it’s not an emergency, or talking to a pharmacist to get non-urgent advice.
He said business continuity plans had been developed for shortages and could include “mutual aid”, with less strained trusts helping others.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty warned earlier this week of the prospect of “substantial” staff shortages in the coming weeks due to omicron’s absence.
Authorities have since decided to relax isolation guidelines for health and care workers – meaning they can go to work even if someone in their household has covid, as long as they are free of symptoms and are tested negative – which will hopefully help some services.
The government is under pressure to put in place more restrictions to prevent the spread of omicron, and reports today indicate plans are being made to potentially restrict the indoor mix and hospitality, but this has so far been resisted by ministers.