Absence rates among NHS staff are climbing as one health boss warns nearly a fifth of NHS Wales staff may be off work at the peak of the Omicron wave.
Just under 2% of NHS staff in Wales are currently off sick from work either with Covid or self-isolating, the latest figures show.
But modelling has suggested that this could rise to 17% in just a month while Wales’ First Minister has warned essential services are under strain.
Read more:The full list of Alert Level 2 Covid rules coming into force in Wales after Christmas
At the height of the Covid pandemic, nearly one in 10 NHS staff were off work due to either being ill with the virus or self-isolating, the data shows.
As Wales faces a fourth wave of the virus, in part driven by the new Omicron variant, staffing levels in the Welsh NHS are significantly better than they were this time last year. For the week ending December 20, just 1% of NHS staff were off work due to Covid sickness, while another 1% were self-isolating.
This has risen slightly compared to two weeks ago, when total absences amounted to 1.6%.
In mid-April 2020, at the peak of the first wave, 7.5% of NHS staff were absent from work with twice as many people off self-isolating than those who were sick with the virus. And this time last year 4.4% of all NHS staff were off either with Covid or self-isolating.
The data, published by StatsWales, covers staff absence and self-isolation rates from mid-April, 2020, for all staff groups, including medical, dental, nursing and midwifery staff.
It comes after the new chief executive for NHS Wales told BBC Wales that a fifth of NHS Wales’ staff may be off work at peak of the Omicron wave. On Thursday, Judith Paget said modelling suggested up to 17% of staff could be ill or self-isolating during January.
If this happens, she said retired healthcare staff could be drafted in to assist with other essential services. The NHS would also have to prioritise the most urgent care and that would have a further detrimental effect on pre-planned treatments.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident on Saturday amid fears about staff absences due to the infection in vital public services including the NHS, fire service and police. The Health Service Journal (HSJ) said internal NHS monitoring figures it had seen showed that the number of healthcare staff in the capital absent due to Covid-19 had more than doubled in four days.
One in three of the workforce would be absent by New Year’s Eve if the growth rate continued, the journal reported.
Initially collected on a weekly basis, the Welsh dataset was reduced to fortnightly reporting from June 17 this year, in part because “data collection was resource intensive for NHS organisations”.
The rate of absence due to staff having Covid has been twice as high among nursing and midwifery staff than medical and dental staff throughout much of the pandemic. For the fortnight period ending December 20, just 0.25% of medical and dental staff were off with Covid compared to 1% of nurses and midwives.
Almost exactly a year ago, on December 21, 2020, this was more than double with 1% of medical and dental staff off with Covid compared to 2.4% of nurses and midwives.
The vaccine rollout and booster jabs are having a very clear impact on absence rates among frontline NHS workers.
Wales’ new chief nursing officer Sue Tranka told WalesOnline that nurses have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic. She said: “They have stood up and worked within their professional remit, and often exceeding that, to deliver on a daily basis against some incredible challenges. It’s been been the toughest period in any of our careers.
“Nurses, midwives, and healthcare workers have done an exceptional job. I don’t underestimate the really difficult time the workforce has had and how quickly they’ve had to adapt. I’m incredibly grateful for their dedication, their hard work, and their professionalism.”
The data has played a key part in helping understand and manage capacity within the NHS to rapidly respond to the changing needs and priorities. StatsWales added a note to its latest data release which said: “As staff absence due to Covid is no longer a major factor in delivering critical NHS services, we wanted to reduce the burden on organisations who collect and supply this data.”
Last week, Wales’ First Minister said the impact of Omicron would likely “come upon us very quickly and very steeply in the month of January.” Demand on services will only increase as more people will need health services and staff themselves will fall ill, Mark Drakeford warned, with some estimates at the time indicating that half of the UK population will fall ill.
Ministers have been looking at modelling data to get some idea of how to suppress the imminent wave, the impact on the available workforce and how Wales can cope with the inevitable demand. A key consideration for them was how Wales would cope if a third of the workforce are unable to work.
On Wednesday, Mr Drakeford announced the latest restrictions for Wales, saying: “Omicron has a doubling time of about two days. By Boxing Day, we will see many thousands of new cases across Wales every day. Already, people are off work sick, putting essential services under strain. This situation will get worse.
“This is an incredibly fast moving situation – just a few weeks ago, no one had heard about the omicron variant. Today most countries in the world are affected by it.” Read everything he said here.
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