Hospital staff absences in England due to Covid-19 jump 31% week-on-week

Professor Sir Chris Whitty warned on Wednesday that Covid-19 hospital admissions are expected to rise over the next two weeks.

24 March 2022

Staff absences at NHS hospitals in England due to Covid-19 have jumped more than 30% week-on-week, the biggest increase since the start of the year, new figures show.

An average of 23,127 staff at hospital trusts in England – 2% of the total workforce – were absent each day last week, either because they were sick with Covid-19 or were self-isolating.

This up 31% on the week to March 13, and is the largest percentage rise since the seven days to January 2 during the peak of the Omicron wave when NHS staff Covid absences rose by 41%.

Covid-19-related staff absences at NHS hospital trusts in England
(PA Graphics)

But it is still below the level reached at the peak of the Omicron wave in early January, when absences due to Covid-19 averaged nearly 46,000.

All regions have seen a week-on-week increase in Covid absences, with south-west England recording the biggest rise (44%), followed by south-east England (40%) and the North East and Yorkshire (34%).

The Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) director for England Patricia Marquis said the new figures showed that the pressure on nursing staff in every region was not easing off.

She added: “With a significantly depleted workforce undermining their attempts to provide safe and effective care, these absences are the last thing nursing staff need.

“The UK Government is offering scant comfort – yesterday’s spring statement did nothing to address the tens of thousands of vacant nursing posts in the long term.

“Cases are rising and more uncertainty looms with free community testing set to end this month. Employers must ensure nursing staff have continued access to testing and high-quality PPE.”

The figures, from NHS England, are the latest sign that coronavirus is becoming more prevalent again, after a period of falling infections in late January and February.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty warned on Wednesday that Covid-19 hospital admissions are expected to rise over the next two weeks.

Sir Chris said the virus was causing pressure in the NHS but that high rates of transmission were fortunately not translating into intensive care (ICU) cases and deaths.

Addressing the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Public Health’s annual public health conference, Sir Chris said: “Covid cases are rising quite rapidly from a quite a high base and this is driven by a number of different factors of which BA.2 – the new Omicron variant – is a large part of it.

“I think it’s important firstly to acknowledge that rates are high and rising in virtually all parts of England.

“This is not translating into the very significant surges in all-cause excess mortality, so we are still running at quite low rates in terms of mortality.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean that that is having no impact at all from it – if we look at hospitalisations, there are now quite significant numbers of people in hospital and they are now rising again, and I think will continue to rise for at least the next two weeks.

“So, there is pressure on the NHS and fortunately this is not translating into cases in ICU, it’s not at the moment translating into significant impact on excess deaths.”

Coronavirus patients
A total of 260 people were in ventilator beds in hospitals in England on March 23 (PA)

The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 in England stood at 13,248 on March 23, up 20% week-on-week and the highest since January 31.

Patient levels in England are still some way below the peak reached at the start of this year during the Omicron wave (17,120) and well below the peak of the second wave in January 2021 (34,336).

The number of patients with symptoms serious enough to be placed in mechanical ventilation beds also remains relatively low.

A total of 260 people were in ventilator beds in hospitals in England on March 23, up 10% from the previous week but far below the 797 recorded at the peak of the Omicron wave – and the 3,736 at the second-wave peak in January 2021.

Separate figures published on Thursday show that just over half of all Covid-19 patients in hospital trusts in England are being treated primarily for something else, up from a quarter in autumn 2021.

All patients who have tested positive for Covid-19 need to be treated separately from those who do not have the virus, regardless of whether they are in hospital primarily for Covid or not.

But the growing proportion of patients who are in hospital “with” Covid-19 rather than “for” Covid-19 – 55% as of March 22 – is another sign that the current wave of the virus has not led to the same sort of pressure on critical care as in previous waves.

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