Intended for healthcare professionals


Covid-19: Health leaders accuse government of ignoring crisis in NHS

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: (Published 14 April 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o981
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. Kent

The BMA has accused the UK government of “burying its head in the sand” over current high levels of covid-19 and the threat they pose to health services and recovery plans.

It warned that the government was failing to grasp the reality of the situation as NHS trusts around the country struggled to cope with the rise in patients with covid, widespread staffing problems, bed shortages, and delays in ambulance handovers.

The Independent newspaper reported that at least two major hospitals in Newcastle and York had dropped routine covid testing of new patients to alleviate pressure on beds. It said that some trusts had begun to drop “red” covid-only wards, while some were considering not separating patients in the emergency department.1

Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operational research unit at University College London, wrote on Twitter, “If more hospitals do this, there goes another covid surveillance tool.” She warned that such policies would inevitably lead to more intra-hospital transmission.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, commented, “The NHS still needs appropriate infection control measures to separate covid and non-covid patients to do everything possible to keep rates of hospital acquired infections down.

“Reducing infection control procedures can help trusts significantly in dealing with mounting pressures as they tackle existing care backlogs on top of growing demands, but, given the ongoing risk from covid-19 and the need to protect patients, staff, and visitors, trusts must strike a careful balance.”

Staffing problems

On 12 April some 20 032 patients were in UK hospitals with covid, including 378 patients in ventilation beds.2 Admissions seem to have peaked around 29 March. In England 1792 patients were admitted to hospital with covid on 12 April, down 15% on a week earlier.

Health services continue to experience staffing problems, with almost 200 000 NHS staff absent because of covid in a single week.3

On 11 April the NHS Confederation accused the government of “abandoning interest in covid” and called for a revamp of its “living with covid” plan. In response, a No 10 spokesperson said that the plan still stood and that covid could be managed “like any other respiratory illness.”

The NHS Confederation’s chief executive, Matthew Taylor, said, “The brutal reality for staff and patients is that this Easter in the NHS is as bad as any winter. But instead of the understanding and support NHS staff received during 2020 and 2021, we have a government that seems to want to wash its hands of responsibility for what is occurring in plain sight in local services up and down the country.”

Chaand Nagpaul, BMA chair of council, said, “It beggars belief that the government thinks we can treat covid-19 ‘like any other respiratory virus,’ when its impact on people’s health and the NHS is manifestly far more damaging.”

The BMA reported that NHS hospitals such as the Royal Stoke were introducing measures to protect urgent cancer care, and NHS leaders in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight issued an “urgent plea” for families to take relatives home from hospital even if they continued to test positive for covid. In addition, waits as long as 22 hours for an ambulance have been reported.4

Letter to leaders

An internal letter sent to North West health leaders by NHS England and NHS Improvement on 12 April stated that a number of discussions had taken place at top regional and trust level to respond to the escalating pressures on the NHS.

The letter, shared on Twitter, said that acute inpatients with covid in the region had increased by around 90% in March from 1134 to 2159. It said that the figure was still growing and was greater than the number of patients in hospital during spring 2021.

At the same time, overall staff sickness levels increased by 8%, with numerous providers citing significant staffing challenges. The letter said that a significant number of acute beds were closed owing to infection prevention and control restrictions and that over 1700 care home beds were closed across the region for a range of reasons. Similar letters have gone out in other regions.

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