An NHS leader today revealed he would support slashing Covid self-isolation to five days amid an escalating staffing crisis that has engulfed hospitals and led some to cancel routine operations.
Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation — an organisation which represents trusts, said two more days should be shaved off the period as long as it was backed up by the science.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the situation was ‘desperate’ and any way of getting staff back to work was a ‘good thing’. But he said it would be ‘completely counterproductive’ to have infectious staff return to wards because it would exacerbate the spread of Omicron.
Last month ministers cut the self-isolation period to seven days, providing someone tested negative using a lateral flow on days six and seven. But pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to follow the US, which has squeezed quarantine to only five days for anyone without symptoms.
Around 1.3million Britons are currently thought to be languishing under house arrest as the NHS, rail services and bin collections all buckle under the weight of staff absences.
One in ten NHS employees are estimated to be off sick or self-isolating, and Mr Johnson yesterday revealed plans are being drawn up to call in the Army if the crisis continues to worsen.
Some 10 out of 137 hospital trusts in England have declared ‘critical incidents’ in recent days — or eight per cent, signalling that they may struggle to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks because so many medics are off isolating. Seventeen hospitals in Greater Manchester have also started shelving operations.
At the same time, the number of Covid-infected patients being hospitalised is rising.
Business leaders today warned that they too were struggling, with the managing director of supermarket chain Iceland saying their absence graph was ‘almost vertical’ and more than double the previous peak.
He told Sky News: ‘I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before. This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact.’
Train services and bin collections are also grinding to a halt as the virus spreads, while schools are warning that they may not have enough teachers in work to run their normal timetables.
Health minister Gillian Keegan admitted that the Government knew this was to be one of the most ‘pressurised winters’ yet. But she praised doctors and nurses for doing an ‘amazing job’, despite the spiralling pressures.
Mr Johnson yesterday said Britain would stick with Plan B restrictions after a record 218,724 cases were recorded, although these included several days of tests done over the holidays but not previously reported.
Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation, said he would back a reduction in self-isolation to five days providing it is backed up by the science. Health minister Gillian Keegan said the NHS faced one of its ‘most pressurised’ winters yet
At least half a dozen trusts across England have declared ‘critical incidents’ indicating that they may be unable to deliver vital care to patients in the coming weeks because so many medics are off isolating
Boris Johnson (pictured out running this morning) has said that he would recommend to Cabinet that Plan B restrictions stay unchanged
Covid testing rules could be relaxed in an effort to combat the havoc wreaked on essential services across the country by thousands of key workers being stuck in self-isolation. Pictured: A deserted Waterloo Station at 08.15 yesterday morning
As the number succumbing to the virus reached a record high, there were fears that staff absence due to Covid could become just as big a problem, with bin collections delayed, trains cancelled and several hospitals in Greater Manchester saying they would suspend non-urgent surgeries. Pictured: Overflowing bins in the Walton area of Liverpool
Nicola Sturgeon could FINALLY cut Covid self-isolation period from 10 days to seven in Scotland
Nicola Sturgeon is expected to announce today whether Scotland will follow the lead of England, Wales and Northern Ireland by cutting the coronavirus self-isolation period.
The Scottish First Minister has been under growing pressure to slash quarantine for people who test positive from 10 days to seven as critical services and businesses feel the strain caused by staff absences.
Ms Sturgeon has previously said the Scottish Government was still examining the issue and last week said she hoped to give an update early in the New Year.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said yesterday that the government is ‘actively considering’ reducing the self-isolation period.
Ms Sturgeon will deliver a virtual Covid statement to MSPs at Holyrood this afternoon as the nation continues to be battered by a surge in Omicron cases.
As stringent Covid isolation rules again threatened to cripple the nation:
- SAGE modeller Dr Mike Tildesley today backed the Prime Minister’s plan to ‘ride out’ the Omicron wave, saying ‘we’re starting to see things turn around;
- Asymptomatic people in England who test positive will not be asked to get a PCR from January 11;
- But this could force more Britons wrongly into self-isolation because a small proportion of lateral flows give a false result;
- Covid cases in Omicron hotspot London are rising in over-60s, official figures show — but experts say these should peak within a week;
- South African scientists said today they are now in a ‘good place’ and that the wave is subsiding;
- Keir Starmer tests positive for Covid for the second time in just ten weeks, making it the sixth time he has been forced to isolate.
Asked if he could support such a change to self-isolation rules, Mr Taylor told BBC Radio 4: ‘As long as it is based on the science.
‘Because on the one hand we do need to try to get staff back to work as soon as possible.
‘Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate — any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing.
‘But on the other hand, if staff come back into hospital and are infectious, that’s completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can’t be led by politics or blind hope — it has to be led by the science.
‘If the science says it is possible for people to go back to work earlier, then of course NHS leaders will want that to be possible.’
He suggested that people in quarantine could test themselves on days three, four and five, and come out of isolation on day five if they test negative.
The Prime Minister said last night that the NHS was now on a ‘war footing’. He called on Britons to exercise ‘utmost caution’, but made it clear he was determined to avoid fresh restrictions — stressing Omicron is milder.
Business leaders joined Mr Taylor’s call for self-isolation to be cut today, with the managing director of Iceland, Richard Walker, saying the absence graph was now ‘almost vertical’ — with levels already double last year’s peak.
He told Sky News: ‘I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before. This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact.
‘My call on government would be firstly to prioritise lateral flow tests for key workers including food retail front line shop workers, but also to revisit the onerous isolation rules.
‘Seven days is a long time for people who are triple jabbed when the symptoms are for the vast majority of people not more than a common cold or mild flu.’
Scientists at the agency fear a further reduction could be ‘counterproductive’ because it could lead to staff returning to work while they are still infectious, and spreading it to other employees.
But evidence showing most people who catch the virus are not infectious from five days after symptoms develop has been available for months.
University of St Andrews’ scientists found in November 2020 that the vast majority of transmission occurs in the first five days after symptoms develop.
And last summer Oxford University’s Pathogen Dynamics Group said just two per cent of transmission occurred five days after symptoms developed.
NHS workers left empty-handed in scramble for LFDs
NHS staff have said they cannot get hold of any lateral flow tests – with some unable to work despite not testing positive for covid at a time when hospitals are routinely cancelling appointments and procedures due to Omicron, it was revealed today.
The British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing have urged the Government to put health workers first for rapid tests to ease staffing issues in the health service.
One in ten NHS staff are currently off sick or isolating – but there are even higher absence rates at individual hospitals, but the NHS does not break down absence by cause, meaning many may be off with other illnesses including stress.
With the Government’s website out of LFTs again today, at least half a dozen NHS trusts across England have indicated they may be unable to deliver vital care to patients – and doctors and nurses say that they are scrambling for tests because they have to go online like millions of other Britons.
Pharmacies have also said it could be up to a fortnight before they get new kits in due to shortages in the supply chain over Christmas, when the company given sole responsibility for distributing them shut down for four days over the festive period.
Hospital doctors, GPs, and cancer care nurses and have all said they are stuck at home having come into close contact with covid cases but unable to get enough lateral flow tests for check daily if they are also infected.
Ministers today eased testing requirements so that people who test positive using a lateral flow no longer need to get a confirmatory PCR.
It comes as a staffing crisis sparked by the spread of Covid left hospital leaders in Greater Manchester no choice but to cancel some operations.
A spokesman said the cancellations were ‘temporary’, although cancer and heart surgery would be protected.
Chief executive of Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, Fiona Noden, said the cancellation was done ‘so we can keep people safe, can maintain the very best infection control measures, can make sure we deploy staff to where they’re needed most and can keep looking after people who need urgent and emergency care’.
The North West — where the hospitals are based — has seen the number of Covid patients in its wards surge 94 per cent over the last seven days to 2,618.
A GP in Oldham, one of the areas affected, warned today that the decision will lead to ‘more suffering’.
Dr Zahid Chauhan, who is also a Labour councillor for the area, told BBC Radio 4: ‘A non-urgent operation might be non-urgent for a hospital administrator or the state, but they are not non-urgent for the patient.
‘If you are waiting for a hip replacement, that means you are in pain, so it might be non-urgent for someone, but for the person who is suffering that is not non-urgent for them.’
Yesterday Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust in neighbouring Lancashire also declared a critical incident.
And there are mounting concerns that hospital trusts in Cumbria could also hit the panic button in response to rising pressures.
Colin Henderson, public health director for the county, said it ‘seems very likely’ that trusts in Cumbria will start to shelve non-urgent operations.
He said: ‘We always knew that January was going to be a tough month.
‘The case rates that we’ve seen so far with the rising hospitalisation rates and the large staff absences and the pressure on social care… are coming together to create a really difficult time for our health and care services.’
Several hospital trusts across the country have already declared critical incidents in response to pressures.
A critical incident allows them to start working with neighbouring NHS trusts to share the workload and avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Asked about the pressures faced by trusts, Ms Keegan said: ‘Right now, they are under extreme pressure with the Omicron variant, with the number of positive cases and the increase in hospitalisations, and at this point in time when they always have extreme pressure.
‘We knew that and we actually knew that going into this period — that’s why we’ve put an extra £5.4billion of investment to try and get extra staff, get some extra capacity to be able to put virtual wards in place, extra beds and extra capacity with the Nightingales, etc, all of which we anticipated, that this was going to be really difficult.
‘We’ve had two years of a pandemic, there is a build-up of people who haven’t come forward who need electives — there is a backlog we need to deal with — and then you have got the unknown of Covid — we now know we have Omicron — and also flu was a big unknown as well, how much flu we would have this year.
‘We always knew that this was going to be one of the most pressurised winters and they are doing an absolutely amazing job.
‘Part of one of the procedures we have with our NHS contingency and resilience plans is actually to declare this critical state, and then they will work with NHS regional colleagues and the local resilience forums to make sure that mutual aid is provided, or whatever support is required, so it is part of the escalation process.
‘These are tried and tested plans, we have these plans in place every winter.’
A record 218,724 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were announced in England and Scotland on Tuesday, though the figure will have been inflated by delayed reporting over the holiday period.
Mr Johnson confirmed he would stick with the Plan B measures including work-from-home guidance, mask-wearing and Covid health passes ahead of Wednesday’s review of the regulations scheduled to expire on January 26.
At a Downing Street press conference, he argued the booster roll-out has given substantial protection and added: ‘So together with the Plan B measures that we introduced before Christmas we have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again.’
Mr Johnson accepted the weeks ahead are going to be ‘challenging’ and said ‘some services will be disrupted by staff absences’ as he pledged to ‘fortify’ the NHS to withstand the pressures and protect supply chains.
Under the measures, he said 100,000 ‘critical workers’ including those in transport, policing and food distribution will get lateral flow tests on every working day starting on Monday.
The Prime Minister added: ‘I would say we have a good chance of getting through the Omicron wave without the need for further restrictions and without the need certainly for a lockdown.’
Mr Johnson’s administration in Westminster has stuck with the Plan B restrictions, announced four weeks ago, despite tougher restrictions being in other UK nations.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will update the Scottish Parliament on the pandemic in the afternoon.
The areas worst affected by the self-isolation rules include:
One in ten NHS staff are off sick or self-isolating. Bosses claim the shortages are making it ‘almost impossible’ to maintain basic patient care.
An ambulance trust yesterday asked patients with heart attacks and strokes to get a lift to hospital because it did not have enough fit paramedics.
The North East Ambulance Service Foundation Trust said call handlers should ‘consider asking the patient to be transported by friends or family’.
A message to staff said they were also having to ferry patients to hospital in taxis due to ‘unprecedented demand’.
Meanwhile at least eight hospital trusts have declared ‘critical incidents’, which means routine patient care is suffering and staff are being redeployed.
Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital had nearly 500 staff absent due to Covid. Morecambe Bay NHS Trust in Lancashire declared a critical incident due to the number of staff testing positive for coronavirus. Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, public health director for the region, said: ‘We are bracing ourselves for a tsunami of Omicron cases in Lancashire.’
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the staffing situation meant it was ‘becoming almost impossible’ to deal with ‘the most urgent and pressing needs’.
He told Times Radio that ‘the most pressing element of all’ is the number of staff who are absent due to the virus, rather than the number of Covid patients needing treatment.
Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cheshire and parts of Essex and Cumbria announced that bin collections would have to be missed or rearranged. Pictured: Festive period rubbish and recycling in Birmingham
Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cheshire and parts of Essex and Cumbria announced that bin collections would have to be missed or rearranged.
In Birmingham, rubbish was left to pile high in the streets.
Pavel Bartos, 23, of Aston, said residents had been waiting since before Christmas to have their bins emptied. ‘It’s been a nightmare and the place has been left looking like a complete tip,’ he said.
‘It is an absolute eyesore and we thought they would be collected by now, but they haven’t. It’s like living in a slum.
‘We were told the Christmas collections would be missed due to staff shortages but to be four days into the New Year and is still look like this is really bad.’
North Somerset Council was unable to pick up 1,000 recycling bins on New Year’s Eve because of staff illness. A spokesman for the Local Government Association called for council workers to be prioritised for Covid tests.
Operators had already been forced to slash dozens of daily services due to around one in ten rail staff calling in sick. Some train firms will now run reduced services for several weeks. Pictured: Victoria train station yesterday
Rail commuters were hit with disruption on the first working day of the year thanks to staff shortages, slashed timetables and faults with trains and tracks
Rail commuters were hit with disruption on the first working day of the year thanks to staff shortages, slashed timetables and faults with trains and tracks.
Operators had already been forced to slash dozens of daily services due to around one in ten rail staff calling in sick. Some train firms will now run reduced services for several weeks.
TransPennine Express cancelled 24 trains yesterday, while CrossCountry has removed around 50 daily services until next week.
LNER, which runs on the East Coast Main Line, has slashed 12 services a day between London and Leeds until Friday.
Southern is not running any services in and out of London Victoria until January 10.
The Gatwick Express, which resumed only three weeks ago after an 18-month closure, has been suspended indefinitely. ScotRail will cut around 160 trains from its normal 2,000 a day until January 28, meaning fewer services in and out of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Meanwhile Transport for Wales cancelled almost 100 trains, including services between Newport and Crosskeys and Chester and Liverpool Lime Street.
Mike Padgham, chairman of the Independent Care Group, which represents care homes in Yorkshire, said the staffing challenge ‘is now at the worst it has been throughout the pandemic’.
He said some care homes and home care providers are struggling to operate and called on the Government to appeal for retired nurses, doctors, and carers to come forward so they can help struggling social care services.
In a letter to ministers, he said: ‘As you know, we need a fully functioning social care sector to ensure that NHS hospital care can function effectively and not be overwhelmed because people cannot be discharged to care settings.
‘At the moment, that cannot be guaranteed and I fear the setting up of surge hubs is not a long-term solution as they too will be struggling for staff.’
Pupils are returning to the classroom after the Christmas break, with advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in coronavirus cases. Pictured: Pupils work in a classroom at The Fulham Boys School on the first day after the Christmas holidays
School leaders told of their worries that staff shortages could worsen and cause further disruption to children’s education.
Union leaders warned of a ‘stressful time’ ahead as existing teacher absences on the first day of term could become even more ‘challenging’ in the weeks ahead. Some schools are reporting that around one in five staff members could be missing at the start of term.
Pupils are returning to the classroom after the Christmas break, with advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in coronavirus cases. Secondary and college students are also being encouraged to test on site before going back to class.
Some could end up wearing coats in lessons in the weeks ahead as heads and academy leaders increase ventilation to help keep classrooms safe.