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‘Substantial staffing gaps’ about to hit, says Whitty

Published on: 16 Dec 2021

The chief medical officer has warned of the rapid emergence of ‘quite substantial rota gaps’ in health and social care services in coming weeks, as omicron cases spread.

Chris Whitty, speaking at a Downing Street briefing this evening, said: “Very large numbers of people in society, and that includes doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, are going to get covid at the same time because it is a very sharp peak.

“There will be a significant problem [of] people actually providing staff to man and generally be able to look after any part of the health and social care system.”

Several senior NHS leaders have expressed similar concerns to HSJ  in recent days.

Professor Whitty had been asked about Christmas plans. He said: “People like me should keep some degree of flexibility [in plans] to deal with the fact that we may end up with quite substantial gaps in rotas at short notice.

“Given how much difficulty my health and social care colleagues have had over the last two years, saying [this] is pretty depressing because they really, really have had to stand up and go back again and again.

“[However] the speed of onset is going to lead to lots of people getting ill simultaneously and we have to be realistic about that.”

Professor Whitty said: “I think there is a high chance that my original Christmas plans with family are going to be interrupted. I hope it is not completely but we shall see.”

Asked about whether further restrictions on mixing were needed, Professor Whitty stopped short of calling for new restrictions but urged people to prioritise what mattered to them, and not attend less important gatherings.

NHS England primary care director Nikki Kanani also encouraged people to be cautious about large gatherings.

There has been some confusion in recent days about whether health and care staff who are contacts of people with a confirmed omicron infection are required to isolate. HSJ  understands officials are likely to confirm in coming days that under national rules they do not have to if — as with other covid contacts — they have a negative PCR test, daily lateral flows, and no symptoms. 

There are also concerns about access to sufficient and rapid enough testing for staff.