Omicron may cause Chelmsford hospital staffing to get ‘very difficult in next few weeks’

COVID could lead to staffing issues at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford getting “very difficult in next few weeks”, a senior Essex doctor has said in the face of the Omicron surge.

Figures have shown that COVID staff absences have rocketed across hospitals in Essex, while wards have become fuller and ambulances continue to queue outside A&E.

A total of 7,438 days were lost at Essex hospitals in the week ending January 2 because staff were sick or self-isolating due to COVID.

That was up nearly 20 per cent from 6,232 the week before, and up nearly 70 per cent from 4,396 days lost a fortnight ago.

There were 2,154 staff absent for any reason on January 2, the equivalent of one in 14 members of staff being off being off for COVID, as well as other sickness and stress.

But the situation could get even worse over the next few weeks, one doctor at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford has said.

The senior clinician, who did not want to be identified, told the LDRS: “The main problems are staffing and flow and capacity. COVID is causing some issues but nothing like last January.

“That was truly hell on earth. But obviously we are now having to deal with normal acute care plus elective backlogs. The staffing issues could get very difficult in next few weeks.

“I suspect we won’t get influenza this year which will be a help, if that comes then it’s worse again.”

While the area was hit by rising staff absences, the figures from NHS England also show increasingly under pressure wards and emergency departments.

On January 2, 88.5 per cent of the 2,051 beds open across Essex hospitals were full. That compares to a near 80 per cent occupancy rate on December 26.

In intensive care, there were just 20 adult critical care beds empty on January 2, according to the latest figures, released on January 7.

On the Sunday before that, there had been 35 beds free.

Outside A&Es, a total of 854 ambulances had to wait more than 30 minutes to handover patients at Essex hospital A&Es last week (equivalent to more than 27 per cent of ambulance attendances), including 410 waiting more than an hour (equivalent to 13 per cent of ambulance jobs). That’s the equivalent of one in four ambulances facing a wait of more than half-an-hour, with one in eight waiting more than an hour.

The target is for handovers to take under 15 minutes.

In the previous week, 496 ambulances waited half-an-hour or longer with 116 waiting more than an hour.

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them. In fact, around 10,000 more colleagues across the NHS were absent each day last week compared with the previous seven days and almost half of all absences are now down to COVID.

“While we don’t know the full scale of the potential impact this new strain will have, it’s clear it spreads more easily and, as a result, COVID cases in hospitals are the highest they’ve been since February last year – piling even more pressure on hard working staff.

“Those staff are stepping up as they always do; answering a quarter more 111 calls last week than the week before, dealing with an increasing number of ambulance call outs, and working closely with colleagues in social care to get people out of hospital safely.

“You can help us to help you by ensuring you are vaccinated against COVID.”

A spokesperson for Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust said: “The Omicron variant is affecting people across the community including NHS staff, which is leading to higher levels of staff absence.

“Our staff are working tirelessly to minimise the impact of this and we have robust plans in place to ensure that patients who urgently need our care continue to receive it.

“The public can continue to support us by getting their COVID and flu vaccinations, washing and sanitising hands regularly, and wearing face coverings where applicable.

“We also urge those seeking non-urgent care to make use of the NHS111 online service, or calling NHS 111, to help with the best option for your care.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter