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Exclusive: Absences hit 120,000 as military sends 200 staff to help hospitals

Published on: 7 Jan 2022

Staff absences from NHS trusts hit nearly 120,000 on Wednesday after another increase, HSJ has learned, as the government deployed 200 military staff to plug gaps.

Figures due to be published by NHS England this morning are expected to show there were total absences across acute trusts of just over 80,000 on 2 January, down from more than 85,000 on 30 December. 

However, figures seen by HSJ show that, after the end of the new year bank holiday period, this acute trusts figure leapt to more than 92,000 by Wednesday (5 January).

The London figure for acute absences on Wednesday was just over 11,000 — similar to the high point in the capital reached just before Christmas — but covid-related absences in the city were about 5 per cent higher.

Absences in other regions have been rising more rapidly in recent days, however.

Across acute, mental health and community trusts nationally, total absences hit a new high of just under 120,000 on Wednesday, according to the routine internal figures seen by HSJ. That is about 20 per cent more than the peak of absences reached last January — and 70 per cent more than the number the NHS was operating with in late November, before omicron sent covid infections rocketing.

Some 62,000 of the total 120,000 absences reported on Wednesday were covid-related.

As a share of the total trust workforce, the rate on Wednesday was estimated at just under 10 per cent, but was over 10 per cent in the Midlands, North East and Yorkshire, and the North West. Those three regions had the highest covid-related absences, and also the highest absence rate for other reasons.

The trusts reporting the highest absence rates are in the north of England and Midlands, but those regions also typically operated with higher absence rates pre-covid. 

NHS England told trusts before Christmas to prepare for large numbers of absences due to omicron, and estimated it may reach up to one in five staff. National rules were changed to permit health staff to work even if a householder has covid, as long as the staff member tests negative. 


Military deployed to help in London

The government last night announced 200 military personnel were being deployed to “support the NHS in London amid staff shortages due to covid-19”. The 200 figure is equivalent to about 1.8 per cent of the covid-related absences in acute trusts in the capital on Wednesday, and 0.2 per cent of the national all-trust total of 120,000.

The Ministry of Defence will provide 40 defence medics and 160 general duty personnel, it said. The first were deployed this week, including in Whipps Cross in east London.

According to the minutes of an internal meeting held by senior leadership at the hospital, 10 general duty military personnel have been deployed. They do not have clinical training so cannot take blood, but will undertake general duties, such as feeding patients and communication with teams and relatives. 

The MoD said: “Service personnel began deploying this week and are expected to be on task for three weeks.

“Forty teams of five personnel, each comprised of one medic and four general duties personnel will be distributed flexibly to ensure support is targeted towards the areas where the need is greatest.

“Military medics will assist NHS staff with patient care. General duty personnel will support with tasks such as maintaining stocks, checking in patients on arrival and conducting basic checks.”

The military is also currently supporting the vaccine booster programme in England, and the other UK nations, and providing 32 military co-responders to provide additional capacity to the South Central Ambulance Service.