Just before the holidays, NHS Medical Director Stephen Powis announced that the health service was on a ‘war footing’ to deal with the surge in Omicron cases . Yet despite his warning that the NHS would see ‘substantial hospitalisations’, the Government has stubbornly refused to change tack.
There are nearly 14,000 people in UK hospitals with Covid currently. Far fewer than at last year’s peak but rising rapidly in my own region, the West Midlands, doubling to more than 2,400, two weeks after Omicron first surged.
Meanwhile, politicians seem to be in denial on the reality of the stresses to the NHS. More than 110,000 NHS staff, nearly one in ten, were absent on New Year’s Eve. And nearly 50,000 were at home sick or self-isolating due to Covid.
What does that mean to individual doctors? My colleagues in medicine and intensive care are reporting increasing levels of burnout.
My personal low point of 2021 was having an MS Teams call from Hell via a court hearing, explaining to two teenage daughters overseas that their father had unsurvivable brain injuries and he was dying – knowing full well that owing to the travel restrictions they wouldn’t be able to be at his side when he passed. Such incidents leave their scars on all our staff. I was recanting the story to some friends recently and started crying, realising that this is not normal.
There will be many, many staff who will have experienced similar horrors and are dreading this winter. To date, the pressures on medical wards have been greater than those on intensive care, but as happened previously with Covid, things change very rapidly.
I dread having to speak to staff about adding to their workload.
Last year, when I approached some nursing colleagues to assist on Covid wards in the second wave, one collapsed in tears in front of me at the thought and another had their PTSD reawakened. Such was the stress of dealing with the first wave. Staff have had enough. The hollow words of any politician are just that – an empty vessel.
The prospect of ‘mini- Nightingale’ hospitals in car parks to deal with the bed crisis provokes laughter from colleagues: who is going to staff them?
Omicron is affecting all of us as NHS staff members – and our families. For example, my New Year’s Eve was spent driving over 50 miles for my son to be tested for Covid symptoms – the irony being that the PPE I used on my journey was of better quality than the surgical masks many healthcare professionals use when dealing with suspected Covid cases.
The Doctors Association UK, along with other organisations, has been campaigning for months for improvements in PPE to reduce staff sickness. A step that doubtlessly could save lives, as would improving ventilation, in addition to the vaccine programme. But these are steps that Sajid Javid and Boris Johnson seem immune to change.
I had a huge sense of relief at my son’s negative test, as I wasn’t entirely sure who would manage my work if I had to self-isolate. I work in a department of two full-time neurologists, where we should have three times that figure.
Meanwhile, one hospital trust in Lincolnshire has declared a critical incident due to ‘staff-related absences from Covid’. And there is no doubt in my mind that there are many other trusts in the same position that we don’t hear about.
A catch-22 paradox, which plays into the hands of conspiracy theorists when local people should know the stresses that their local hospital is under.
In some trusts, staff are being asked to come in from annual leave. As such, England is an outlier of the four nations – while Boris is paralysed into indecision by his backbenchers. We’ll find out within two months which government was correct.
It’s worth noting to add to this mess, the staffing crisis is worsened by overseas doctors who are, in effect, unable to work by a combination of cancelled language assessments via the General Medical Council.
So, despite all this talk of a ‘war footing’, the failures by government of leadership are more reminiscent of the fictional wartime leader General Melchett of Blackadder than any budding Winston Churchill: ‘If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.’
Our staffing crisis would be funny if it wasn’t so deadly serious.