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Covid-19: NHS staff absences rise again as cases increase

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o737 (Published 18 March 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o737
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

NHS leaders have expressed concern after the latest figures showed that staff absences in hospitals were rising again amid high SARS-CoV-2 infection rates.

The figures, published by NHS England on 17 March,1 show that the number of staff in acute care trusts who were absent from work for covid related reasons increased by almost a fifth in the past week.

Seven day averages showed that covid related absences rose by 19% from 14 822 on 6 March to 17 579 on 13 March. The proportion of overall staff absences that were related to covid increased from 27% to 30% in the same week.

The number of staff absences that were due to covid remains much lower than the winter peak in early January, when in the week ending 9 January an average of 45 736 staff in hospitals were off. But Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said the situation was nevertheless increasing pressure on hospitals and would have a knock-on effect on other services.

“These numbers are concerning and reverse the previous falling trend we had been seeing since early January,” McCay said. “If rates continue to rise this will put further pressure on the NHS and could undermine its ability to tackle the elective backlog. This will also have knock-on effects in community and primary care settings where demand far outstrips capacity.”

McCay added, “Any rise in covid related staff absences also serves to compound existing pressures on the NHS, which is carrying 110 000 vacancies. We now urgently need to see a long term, fully costed workforce plan from the government.”

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said, “While it is positive that the levels of serious illness are lower than in previous waves—which demonstrates just how successful the vaccination programme has been—the rising number of patients with covid-19, combined with increased staff absences, will have knock-on effects for patient care. For example, separating covid-19 positive patients to prevent others getting infected does mean fewer beds are available, and that can impact upon work to bear down on waiting lists.”

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