The number of hospital staff in England absent for Covid-related reasons has soared by almost 60 per cent in a week as the effect of the Omicron wave batters the health service.
A total of 39,142 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England were absent for Covid-19 reasons on January 2, up from 24,632 on the previous week and more than three times the number at the start of December, according to new figures from NHS England.

There were 82,384 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England who were absent for all sickness reasons on January 2, including self-isolation, up 21 per cent on the previous week and up 37 per cent from the start of December, NHS England said. Almost half of all absences are now due to Covid-19.

The North East, Yorkshire and the North West were the hardest hit regions where Covid absences are up by roughly three quarters.

Some of the hardest-hit hospitals in the country are in the north of England with Sheffield’s teaching hospitals missing 11 per cent of staff due to Covid. However, in London, where data suggest a slowdown in the Omicron wave after Christmas, staff absences actually fell by 4 per cent

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The biggest week-on-week percentage jump in absences for all reasons was in north-east England and Yorkshire (up by 39 per cent from 12,880 to 17,910), followed by north-west England (up by 24 per cent from 12,871 to 15,912) and the Midlands (up by 23 per cent from 14,177 to 17,408).

Meanwhile, almost 3,000 critical care and general acute beds have been closed due to Covid or norovirus over the last week, officials said.

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said rising Covid-19 cases were “piling even more pressure” on hospitals.

NHS England staff answered almost 80,000 more 111 calls this week than the week before, a rise of more than a quarter, and almost 50,000 more calls than the previous high this winter. The health service is recruiting 1,000 more 111 call handlers to deal with the increase, it said.

Prof Powis said: “Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them. In fact, around 10,000 more colleagues across the NHS were absent each day last week compared with the previous seven days and almost half of all absences are now down to Covid.

“While we don’t know the full scale of the potential impact this new strain will have it’s clear it spreads more easily and, as a result, Covid cases in hospitals are the highest they’ve been since February last year – piling even more pressure on hard working staff.

“Those staff are stepping up as they always do; answering a quarter more 111 calls last week than the week before, dealing with an increasing number of ambulance call outs, and working closely with colleagues in social care to get people out of hospital safely.

“You can help us to help you by ensuring you are vaccinated against Covid. And as has been the case throughout the pandemic, if you have a health problem, please go to 111 online and call 999 when it is a life threatening condition – the NHS is here for you.”

It comes as the military is in discussions about offering further support to hospitals around the UK after deploying personnel to London trusts as they battle the current Covid wave, a Royal Air Force chief has said.

Air Commodore John Lyle said the Armed Forces were looking at ways to offer more assistance as around 200 personnel take up roles in the NHS in London, which is ahead of the rest of the country in dealing with Omicron.

The Ministry of Defence said the deployment in London includes 40 military medics and 160 general duty personnel to help fill gaps caused by absences of NHS staff unable to work because they are ill or having to self-isolate.

They will be deployed in 40 teams of five – comprising one medic and four support personnel – and will be targeted at areas where the need is greatest. It is expected they will be “on task” for the next three weeks.

In addition, 32 military co-responders are being provided to support the South Central Ambulance Service, working alongside paramedics until the end of March.