Troops are getting ready to support the NHS through the current wave of Covid-19 as NHS data shows staff absences due to Covid have risen 59% in a week.
The military said it could offer assistance to more hospitals around the UK if needed after around 200 personnel were drafted in to help the NHS in London, which has led the Omicron wave sweeping the country.
It comes as NHS England data shows 39,142 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England were absent for Covid-19 reasons on January 2, up 59% on the previous week (24,632) and more than three times the number at the start of December (12,508).
The figures suggest one in 25 (4% of) NHS staff working in acute hospital trusts are off sick or self-isolating due to Covid.
This 4% is based on NHS Digital monthly workforce data for September for acute trusts (the most recent available).
The latest data shows that in north-west England, 7,338 NHS staff at hospital trusts were absent due to Covid-19 on January 2, up 85% week-on-week from 3,966, while in north-east England and Yorkshire there were 8,788 absences, more than double the number a week earlier (4,179).
In London, absences were up 4% week-on-week, from 4,580 to 4,765.
Overall, there were 82,384 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England who were absent for all sickness reasons on January 2, including self-isolation and mental health reasons, up 21% on the previous week (68,082) and up 37% from the start of December (60,136).
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said rising Covid-19 cases were “piling even more pressure” on hospital trust workers.
He 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.”
Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing’s director for England, said: “Outside of healthcare, staffing shortages are closing shops and cancelling trains but nurses can’t stop helping their patients.
“Instead, they find themselves spread thinner and thinner, but they can’t keep spinning plates indefinitely either – this situation is simply not safe.”
According to the Health Service Journal (HSJ), staff absences across the entire NHS, including mental health trusts and other areas, for any reason including Covid-19, may be as high as 120,000.
Earlier, Air Commodore John Lyle told BBC Breakfast the military was on hand to offer its support.
He said: “We can’t really forecast too far ahead, but certainly, throughout this current surge, we know that it’s particularly difficult in London at the minute but we are aware that this is impacting all across the United Kingdom.
“And so we remain in discussions and there are a number of areas where we’re looking at the potential for more assistance.
“So, over the coming weeks or months, I think we’ll learn a lot from how the progress is made through London and potentially there could be further military support required in other areas.”
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the deployment in London includes 40 military medics and 160 general duty personnel to help fill gaps caused by absences of NHS staff.
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.
Speaking to Sky News, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the BMA, said “we have never known this level of staff absence before”.
He added: “Every winter of course, the NHS has additional pressures, but I don’t think anyone who’s worked in the NHS has experienced this level of absence of their colleagues and we’re feeling it in very real time because doctors and nurses and healthcare workers are having to cover for their absent colleagues – that’s adding additional, exceptional strain.”
Asked how close the NHS is to being overwhelmed, he said: “I think that the words like overwhelmed… I mean, I think we should just look at the reality.
“The reality of the Army having been drafted into London, the reality of 24 hospitals having declared critical incidents, the reality of having some hospitals having to cancel all their routine surgery, the reality of general practices having to cancel clinics on the day.
“I’m a GP, I’ve never known it this bad. We’re having to literally contact patients without notice that the staff member or a doctor or nurse just isn’t in today because they’re self-isolating.
“This is not normal, and therefore the Government does need to recognise this is clearly an NHS under extreme pressure and the living reality sadly for thousands of patients is that they’re suffering the consequences of such pressures and also staff absence.”
Dr Nagpaul said it is important “the Government doesn’t just wait to ride this out, because every day people are suffering”.
He said there are two or three things that must be done, including bringing down levels of Omicron infections in the community and higher-grade face masks for NHS staff to help protect them as much as possible.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said people should not feel “concerned” by the presence of the military in hospitals.
He added: “The NHS is not going to disintegrate – it’s been dealing with this crisis for two years and it will deal with it again and NHS managers will… burn the midnight oil thinking about how they deploy their resources to deal with things that are most urgent.”
He said there will be a “price to be paid” in terms of ambulance wait times or cancelled operations but the “NHS will get through this”.
Elsewhere, business minister Paul Scully said he does not think the country needs more lockdowns after being asked about reports that Health Secretary Sajid Javid had argued in a Covid-O Cabinet committee meeting this week that removing the PCR pre-departure test requirement for travellers could lead to “having to shut down the entire economy”.
Mr Scully told Sky News: “I don’t believe at this stage that we need any more lockdowns.”