Health service under pressure from influx of Covid patients across England as more staff self-isolate
Hospitals are again having to cancel operations, including cancer surgery, because they are treating growing numbers of patients with Covid and losing staff who are having to isolate.
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust has had to call off some planned non-urgent operations this week to help it cope with an influx of patients who have been left seriously ill with Covid.
Other hospitals and ambulance services are also coming under serious pressure in what NHS staff believe is an unfolding third wave of Covid, which they fear will get worse in the next few weeks.
“Drawing on experience from previous waves of the pandemic we are enacting plans to help us treat increased numbers of Covid admissions while still providing care to those patients waiting for scheduled operations,” said Dr Phil Wood, the Leeds trust’s chief medical officer.
“While every patient’s care is important to us, we have had to postpone some planned elective operations to ensure patients who require urgent treatment are prioritised,” he added.
“Along with the rest of the NHS we are seeing an increase in patients admitted to our hospitals with Covid-19.”
The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham has also had to postpone some scheduled surgeries because a large number of its staff are off work because they are in quarantine after being identified as a contact of someone with symptoms of Covid, the Guardian understands.
Ambulance services are also hit by the same problems. The regional NHS ambulance services covering the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west are struggling to cope, it is thought.
The new rise in Covid cases also means that some patients are spending unusually long in the back of ambulances because A&E units are too busy to accept them.
Meanwhile, hospital bosses want NHS staff to no longer have to isolate from 19 July, four weeks before quarantine is lifted for the double jabbed and children on 16 August.
The fast-growing number of frontline personnel off work is adding to the pressures on hospitals, which are unusually busy for the time of year even without the surge in Covid infections, they said.
“The number of staff off isolating because they’ve been pinged by the NHS app is causing real problems and their absence is really affecting their colleagues who are left,” an NHS source said.
For example, about 1,000 staff at University Hospitals Birmingham are isolating this week either because they have been identified as a contact, or have had to take time off to look after a child whose “bubble” has been sent home from school or because they are ill themselves, a source said.
Hospital chiefs are frustrated that staff still have to quarantine for 10 days if they are identified as a contact of someone with Covid, even though most of them have had both Covid vaccinations. They fear that even more health workers will have to stay away from work over the coming weeks as Covid infections soar to what Sajid Javid has admitted could soon be more than 100,000 cases a day.
They say that “the logical date” on which to release NHS staff from the duty to quarantine is 19 July, the “Freedom Day” on which most remaining restrictions on social contact will be lifted in England, even though some scientists believe that is dangerous and premature.
An NHS source said that, with cases expected to shoot up after that as a direct result of restrictions being lifted, hospitals would need as many of their staff available to deal with the demand for care that will ensue.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of hospital body NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders are already asking whether, if double-vaccinated members of the public won’t be required to self-isolate after 16 August, this date can be brought forward for NHS staff, who were one of the first groups to be vaccinated.”
However, Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and member of the Independent Sage committee of scientific experts, recommended that ministers take a cautious approach. Self-isolation when possibly infected was even more important for hospital staff, because they were around vulnerable people all day, he said.
Instead of focusing on lifting almost all restrictions, which some have said could push people to delete the NHS Covid app, ministers should be focusing on making workplaces safer – including by improving ventilation and promoting mask-wearing, Scally said.
“What we can’t do is just let the virus run rampant. Therefore we’ve got to take protective action. And that means prevention and [recognising that] we have never run test and trace properly. It reaches people far far too slowly and, particularly with this transmissible virus, that’s a particular problem,” he said.
The Guardian has approached the Department of Health and Social Care for its response.