The NHS in England is facing “enormous pressure” ahead of Christmas as the number of staff absences due to sickness has increased by almost a fifth.
Weekly winter NHS England data published this week revealed a number of factors which could impact provision of services in the coming weeks, including staff sickness, a rise in influenza in hospital and thousands of people waiting to be discharged in time for Christmas.
The data showed that there was an average of 60,583 absences due to staff sickness every day last week, an increase of 18% on last month (51,342 during the week ending 20 November).
“The real cause of this is record nursing vacancies in the NHS”
Meanwhile, the number of staff off work due to Covid-19 has risen by a third since last month, to 7,218 a day (compared to 5,454).
These figures reflect the “tripledemic” facing the NHS in the coming months due to a rise in flu and Covid cases alongside record demand for urgent and emergency services.
Latest data showed that the number of patients with flu in hospital has increased by two thirds in one week, with an average of 1,939 flu cases in England’s hospitals every day (up from 1,162).
Additionally, the number of flu patients in intensive care has also increased from 87 a day to 149 – up 71% in one week.
This data also comes against a backdrop of staff strikes which have taken place this month across NHS organisations over pay and safe staffing, with more planned in the new year.
Unions such as the Royal College of Nursing have warned that unsafe staffing levels and ongoing workforce pressures are leading to compromised patient care.
After two strikes this month, the RCN announced today that its members will strike again in England on Wednesday 18 January and Thursday 19 January as part of their ongoing pay dispute with the government.
RCN director for England, Patricia Marquis, warned that the latest figures showed that health and care “is under a huge strain in the run up to Christmas”.
The data also revealed that thousands of patients are stuck in hospital who are deemed medically fit to leave.
An average of 19 in 20 (95%) general and acute beds have been occupied since last month.
Ms Marquis said that the lack of available community and social care services, which would enable them to be discharged, meant that patients fit to go home “[will] be spending this Christmas in hospital”.
“The NHS has prepared for winter extensively”
She added: “The real cause of this is record nursing vacancies in the NHS and tens of thousands more across health and social care.
“Ministers can only begin to fix this by addressing the record nursing vacancies and valuing the profession properly by paying nurses fairly to retain and recruit the staff that patients need.”
Responding to the data, Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said that as well as the impact of industrial action last week, “it is clear that the NHS is facing enormous pressure ahead of Christmas”.
He said that, despite this, NHS staff “continue to deliver a significant amount for patients”.
Professor Powis surged the public “to continue to use services widely” by calling 999 for life-threatening emergencies and using 111 online for other health conditions.
He added: “The NHS has prepared for winter extensively with more beds, extra call handlers as well as the expansion of falls response services, control centres and respiratory hubs, but with flu hospitalisations and Covid cases on the rise, the best things you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible.”