How much pressure is the NHS under? How hospitals, ambulances and staff are coping with Omicron Covid wave

The NHS is “on a war footing” and taking the fight to Omicron, according to its national medical director Professor Stephen Powis. New figures show how hospitals are coping so far, amid mounting staff sickness levels.

The UK Government will “keep analysing” the latest data on the Omicron wave to see whether further restrictions will be needed after Christmas, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said.

One of its key concerns is whether the NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed by a combination of annual winter pressures and a surge in coronavirus patients.

So what is the latest data telling us about how hospitals in England are coping?

Hospital staff absences

The number of hospital staff absent from work because of Covid in England has risen by more than a third in a week, new figures show.

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis described the number of Covid-related sick days as “worrying, high and rising”.

NHS hospitals lost 24,855 days to Covid-related staff absences in the week ending December 19, up 38% on the week before.

This includes staff who were ill with Covid-19 or who were having to self-isolate.

The situation was most severe in the Omicron hotspot of London, which saw 23,681 sick days lost to Covid last week, more than double the number seen the week before.

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Prof Powis said: “The NHS is on a war footing and staff are taking the fight to Omicron, by boosting hundreds of thousands of people each day, treating thousands of seriously ill Covid patients and delivering urgent care for other conditions, all while seeing a worrying, high and rising increase in absence due to Covid.”

Mr Javid acknowledged that staff absences due to Covid were adding to pressures on the NHS but said the easing of self-isolation rules would help.

“Some of the recent moves we have had, moving from 10-day to seven isolation if you take a test in the last two days, I think all of that will help,” he told broadcasters.

Covid hospitalisations

While Covid case numbers have been hitting record highs this month, hospitalisations have remained more static.

So far, the number of Covid patients needing hospital treatment has come nowhere close to the levels seen during the previous Alpha and Delta waves.

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Queueing ambulances

A key metric to gauge whether A&E departments are under strain is how long ambulances spend queueing to hand over patients.

One in five patients (20%) waited at least half an hour to be handed over from ambulance teams to A&E staff at hospitals in England last week, according to NHS England figures.

This is down slightly from 23% of arrivals in the week to December 12.

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Hospitals in the Midlands fared worst, with handover delays of 30 minutes or more affecting 26.2% of ambulance arrivals.

Bed-blocking

As well as fighting the Omicron wave, the NHS is also facing perennial winter problems, such as bed-blocking.

On average more than half of inpatients in England (55%) who were fit to be discharged each day last week did not leave hospital, NHS England said.

This is broadly unchanged on the average for the previous week (54%).

The reasons for not discharging these patients will include a lack of space in care homes or ongoing discussions with local social services over levels of support.

On December 19, the most recent date for which figures are available, out of 15,718 patients in England who were medically fit to leave, 10,576 (67%) were still in hospital.

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