Absences among NHS staff in England due to Covid have fallen by 22% on the previous week, figures show, with signs the staffing crisis in the health service may be easing, although health leaders have cautioned that staff are still under “intense” pressure.
There were more than 35,000 Covid absences on an average day in the week to 16 January, down from almost 46,000 the week before. However, the figures are still significantly higher than the absence levels before the Omicron surge. At the start of December, there were about 12,000 absences on an average day.
Absences for all reasons including Covid were down by 13% and stand at 77,000 across the NHS.
However, NHS and health leaders cautioned that “exhausted” staff remained under severe pressure on the frontline, and said that was unlikely to change for months.
Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS England national medical director, said: “Even though the numbers are going in the right direction, NHS staff will have many tough months ahead as they continue to deliver patient care while managing competing demands. While staff absences remain high and continue to increase in some parts of the country, it is good to see they have been reducing week on week.
“The number of people in hospital for both Covid and non-Covid care remains high, and arrivals at A&E via ambulance increased by more than 2,000, even as the largest and fastest vaccination programme in NHS history is boosting the nation and helping to protect people from the virus.”
Separately released data showing the total number of critical care beds in England stood at 3,040 on Sunday, lower than the pre-Covid five-year average and significantly lower than the 4,834 beds required in the same period in 2021.
Government data covering the whole of the UK shows that the number of Covid patients in hospitals has fallen again in recent days. Having reached a post-Omicron high of 19,930 on 10 January, the figure dipped below 19,000 on Tuesday.
On average in the week to Tuesday, 19,375 patients were being treated in UK hospitals, equivalent to levels last seen in February 2021.
Despite the slight improvement in the national picture, Patricia Marquis, the director for England at the Royal College of Nursing, urged caution.
“These figures are no grounds for complacency,” she said. “Our members remain under intense pressure and the data shows the level of staff absence is still very high with bed occupancy rates showing little sign of declining. Nursing staff are facing huge seasonal pressures, with tens of thousands of vacancies, an enormous backlog and no end in sight.
“As ministers relax the Covid-19 restrictions, nursing staff are exhausted. They need government to grip the reality, come up with a fully funded workforce plan and invest in those staff or there is real risk to patient care and of an exodus of experienced nurses.”