UK's Omicron surge causes hospital staff shortages

Spread of coronavirus variant forcing many to stay away from work

Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron

Healthcare providers in the UK are struggling with staffing numbers due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the National Health Service will face “considerable pressure” in the coming weeks. He pledged to “make sure that we look after our NHS any way that we can”, and added that it would be “absolute folly” to think the pandemic was “all over”.

In Yorkshire, the region’s ambulance service said that “the added challenge of Covid-19-related absence among staff … is having a significant impact on our frontline operations”.

In Swansea, Wales, a hospital reported it could only provide a “limited service” at its emergency department because of staff shortages.

“I appreciate the pressures that our hospitals are under. I think it’s vital that we make sure that we help them by trying to contain the pandemic in the ways that I’ve set out,” said Mr Johnson on Monday.

“So, do all the things that I’ve said, make sure we follow a Plan B, get boosted, but also help the NHS with their staffing requirements, and we’re looking at what we can do to move people into those areas that are particularly badly affected,” he said.

About 50,000 NHS staff were reportedly absent from work on Friday because they were ill or self-isolating due to the virus.

A hospital trust in Lincolnshire, which operates four sites in the county, has declared a “critical incident” as “significant staffing pressures” wreaked havoc.

In declaring its critical incident, the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust said it was “unable to maintain safe staffing levels” because of workforce shortages.

“This is resulting in compromised care across our hospitals and an inability to maintain a number of key pathways, including those around stroke and cardiac care,” said an internal document seen by The Sunday Times.

In a separate statement, the medical director of the trust, Dr Colin Farquharson, said: “Our staff continue to work exceptionally hard and we would like to reassure our patients and the public that in spite of the challenges faced, essential services remain fully open for anyone who needs them, so people should continue to come forward for care.”

The shortages come amid a wider trend in the UK, with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant causing disruption across industries.

UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC on Monday that the NHS “is very good at being able to move staff around within the system".

“They have an infrastructure to do that. We now have 10,000 more nurses and 3,000 more doctors than we had last year working in the NHS.

“But the NHS is very good at sort of making sure that staff shortages are monitored and dealt with pretty well.

“They’ve done it over many years in winter when we’ve been, you know, have big flu viruses around.”

Mr Johnson defended his decision not to ramp up virus restrictions over the Christmas period in England, unlike in other UK regions where nightclubs were closed and limits were placed on social gatherings.

“Of course, we keep all measures under review, but the mixture of things we're doing at the moment is, I think, the right one,", he said.

The UK has one of the highest death tolls from Covid-19, with about 149,000 fatalities.

Updated: January 3rd 2022, 4:40 PM