'Catastrophic' NHS staff shortages due to Omicron as variant spreads through London

19 December 2021, 16:28 | Updated: 19 December 2021, 16:34

There are worries NHS staff shortages could become even worse as Omicron continues to spread, particularly in London
There are worries NHS staff shortages could become even worse as Omicron continues to spread, particularly in London. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Figures suggesting that one in three NHS staff in London could be off work by New Year's Eve have been branded "catastrophic" by a nursing leader.

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The possible staff absence levels were reported by the Health Service Journal (HSJ) as the capital deals with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The strain is now the dominant coronavirus variant in London, and the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has said the surge in cases is "hugely concerning".

Mr Khan declared a major incident on Saturday, amid fears about staff absences due to the infection in vital public services.

As well as the NHS, there are also concerns about how staff absence could affect the fire and police services.

Read more: Major incident declared in London as 'worrying' number of frontline staff have Omicron

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The HSJ said internal NHS monitoring figures seen by the journal showed that the number of healthcare staff in the capital absent due to Covid-19 had more than doubled in four days.

One in three of the workforce would be absent by New Year's Eve if the growth rate continued, the journal reported.

It comes as data from the Zoe Covid Symptom Tracker app suggested nearly one in 20 people in their twenties in London currently have Covid.

A spokesperson for NHS London said the new variant was "spreading rapidly in London and was causing higher levels of staff absence.

"Teams are working hard to minimise any impact from this and to work flexibly during this time," said the spokesperson, who added there were contingency plans in place for a loss of staff numbers, which include prioritising services.

The spokesperson added: "Londoners should continue to seek healthcare when they need it and can help us by going to NHS111 online first when it's not an emergency, or by speaking with a pharmacist for non-urgent advice."

Read more: Sajid Javid promises Parliament will be recalled if further restrictions are needed

Read more: Covid: Netherlands announces strict lockdown to curb spread of Omicron

Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing's England director, said there was "no doubt" the HSJ's predicted figures would be "catastrophic".

"Winter is difficult at the best of times," she told BBC Radio 4.

"The workforce is already short, the workforce is already exhausted - mentally and physically - so the prospect of that just must fill everybody on the frontline, and the public, with real concern, because the NHS just has to be able to cope with emergency and urgent care in order for the public to feel safe."

The Government has ramped up the booster programme in response to the Omicron variant after early data suggested a third dose is crucial in reducing the risk of infection.

A record number of vaccines were administered on Saturday, the vast majority of which were booster jabs.

"We are in a race between the virus and vaccine and we are doing everything in our power to get jabs in arms as quickly as possible," said Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

""We are calling on people to get boosted now as part of our national mission to reinforce our wall of defence against the rapid spread of Omicron.

"I want to thank the thousands of people who have heroically stepped up to support our vaccine drive. We're all in this together - please play your part."