NHS hospital staff illness or absence up to three times usual level

Hospitals and ambulance services are struggling with a staff sickness rate two to three times higher than usual, as growing numbers of NHS workers fall ill or go into isolation amid a huge surge in Covid infections.

Absence rates in some hospitals are now between 8% and 12%, versus the health service’s normal level of 4%, just as the NHS comes under the greatest strain in its history.

The large numbers of frontline personnel off work is leading to intensive care units being left short-staffed and A&E departments having to force patients to wait outside in ambulances.

“Hospitals and other trusts are experiencing higher levels of staff absence because they are either unwell with Covid or isolating because of it,” said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers.

“Staff absences can translate into longer waits for care, and as we are currently seeing, often not in ideal settings, such as in ambulances, where they are unable to hand over patients.”

As well as Covid-related illness and isolation, mental ailments such as anxiety, stress and PTSD from treating patients during the pandemic are also likely to help explain the high number of frontline staff off sick.

In one hospital trust in the Midlands, 8% of the workforce was off work on Wednesday. However, the real rate of staff not working was actually 14%, once the 6% on annual leave were included, an executive said.

“We currently have twice the number of staff of sick than we usually would, perhaps unsurprising at a time when we are seeing infections surging locally,” the official said. “This obviously results in increased pressure on a workforce already tired and working flat out. We are doing as much as we can to support our staff but these are incredibly challenging times.”

Some trusts have responded by restricting staff leave, to help plug gaps in the workforce. The Royal Free hospital in Camden, London, has limited leave to a maximum of 72 hours.

In a memo to staff on Tuesday the Royal Free explained that, due to the huge strain of treating 424 Covid patients “all staff have had all study leave cancelled and today the plan is to limit all leave to only three days, and if you can, cancel all leave booked in January. This is the ask for all staff groups.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic hospitals have fewer bank, locum, and other temporary staff, to call upon to replace their own personnel, added Cordery.

“This means that those staff working will be more stretched, and, when demand is high and patients are incredibly unwell, this translates into huge pressure.”

She said that when a trust believed it no longer had the staff to safely run services it would “seek support from others, including diverting ambulances and emergency cases to other hospitals”.

Quick Guide

Who in the UK will get the new Covid-19 vaccine first?


The UK has become the first western country to license a vaccine against Covid. On 8 December, Margaret Keenan, aged 90, became the the first patient in the world to receive it. The government’s joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has published a list of groups of people who will be prioritised to receive a vaccine for Covid-19. The list is:

1 All those 80 years of age and over and health and social care workers.

2 All those 75 and over.

3 All those 70 and over.

4 All those 65 and over.

5 Adults under 65 at high at risk of serious disease and mortality from Covid-19.

6 Adults under 65 at moderate risk of at risk of serious disease and mortality from Covid-19.

7 All those 60 and over.

8 All those 55 and over.

9 All those 50 and over.

10 Rest of the population.

On Wednesday the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was approved for use. Hours later, in a move that will be warmly welcomed by health workers, the head of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, confirmed the imminent deployment of the new jab from Monday meant NHS staff could now get immunised right away.

Staff will be risk-assessed to see who should get inoculated first. Priority will be given to those “at high risk of infection, at high individual risk of developing serious disease, or at risk of transmitting infection to multiple vulnerable persons or other staff in a healthcare environment”, Stevens said. In practice that is likely to mean that A&E staff, those dealing with Covid cases on wards or in intensive care units, GPs and ambulance crews are offered the vaccine first.

Hospital bosses, GP leaders and frontline staff had become increasingly vocal in recent weeks in airing their concern that leaving NHS personnel unvaccinated could expose both them and patients to danger. Staff groups argued that inoculating frontline workers would reduce sickness absence, lower the risk of outbreaks of hospital-acquired Covid, cut the number of NHS staff treated in ICU or dying after catching the disease, and help keep overstretched services running.

Responding to growing unease among NHS staff about their inability to get the vaccine so far, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told MPs on Wednesday that as a result of the arrival of the Oxford vaccine “we will be able to accelerate the vaccination of NHS staff”, as well as care home staff and residents.


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