Tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and hospital staff have been forced out of work each day in the past six months because of Covid, bringing widespread disruption to services and undermining efforts to tackle the backlog, health leaders say.
It comes just days after a parliamentary report warned that the NHS and the social care sector are facing the “greatest workforce crisis” in their history, adding that “persistent understaffing poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety in routine and emergency care”.
Data shared with The Independent by GoodShape, an employee wellbeing and performance analysis company, shows that 2,745,109 working days were lost between January and June because of Covid, costing the taxpayer £423m.
Over the same period in 2021, a total of 1,583,169 working days were lost, at a cost of £237m. The NHS currently employs 1.3 million staff.
Officials are also concerned about the disruptive impact that Covid will continue to have on the NHS in the months ahead, as efforts are made to work through the health service’s backlog, with a record-breaking 6.6 million patients waiting for treatment.
NHS Providers, which represents trusts throughout England, said absences and workforce shortages were having “a knock-on effect on the NHS’s efforts to bring down waiting lists and to meet ever-growing demand across the health and care system”.
Dr Ian Higginson, the vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM), said long waits for ambulances and A&E services – “which were already woefully understaffed” before the pandemic – were being exacerbated by persistent absences driven by Covid and poor mental health.
“Our concern moving forward is that we will see a steadily progressive failure of the NHS, particularly in the urgent/emergency care sector, to be able to deliver what it’s meant to deliver,” he added.
According to NHS data, an average of 25,794 staff at acute trusts were off sick with Covid each day between January and the end of April. During this period, the coronavirus accounted for 38.3 per cent of absences.
The GoodShape figures, meanwhile, show that 547,664 periods of absence were recorded by NHS staff between January and June this year – a similar number, it is estimated, as that for the whole of 2021.
Dr Alison Leary, chair of healthcare and workforce modelling at London South Bank University, said that Covid – in combination with mental illness and general sickness – had reduced staffing numbers in NHS teams by “up to 50 per cent” in recent months.
“That’s across the board,” said Dr Leary, who works with NHS trusts and organisations. “So it could be an emergency department, it could be a district nursing team. All different types of services are being affected by it.
“When you have sickness that goes across all the services, you can’t easily redeploy people. You can’t really use that as a strategy.”
She warned that “a lot of” NHS organisations had already been running with “suboptimal staffing numbers” prior to the pandemic, and that a further reduction in staffing levels is “now putting patients at risk”.
One senior source at a trust in the East of England region said that the completion of priority work “has to some extent been hindered by staff absences”, and that, at times of severe shortage, staff were facing the “challenge of ‘maintaining their skills’”.
The source added: “Worryingly, the trust has noted an increase in the numbers of patient falls; this is also possibly due to staff absences. Our trust continues to have challenges to ensure it is providing safe staffing levels – [problems with] which have been exacerbated by staff needing to self-isolate.”
The RCEM said that even before Covid hit, the NHS had been running on an “unsustainable” footing as a result of staff shortages.
“Before Covid, many ambulance services, many emergency departments, many parts of the primary care system were running on pretty bare-bones staff,” said Dr Higginson. “To then be losing multiple members of staff, depending on what the rules were at the time – even if they had only mild Covid, or were asymptomatic, and they were required to be off work for 10 days, as it was at one point – that had a really significant impact on the services we provided.”
The GoodShape data also exposes the extent to which mental illness is driving absences in the NHS – an issue that was present long before Covid.
In 2022 so far, 1.2 million working days have been lost by the NHS to mental-health-related absences, costing the health service an estimated £192m.
In 2021, 2.8 million days were lost to mental illness, up from 2.7 million in 2020 and 2.2 million in 2019.
Amanda Manser, a director of operations at GoodShape, said the number of staff walking away from the NHS as a result of burnout or the desire to pursue other careers is, like Covid-19, placing major strain on the health service at a time of unprecedented demand.
In February, data showed that in England, at least 400 staff a week were leaving the NHS to improve their work-life balance – a record high for the health service.
Ms Manser said that the high absence rates in the sector fit into a wider staffing crisis that is “undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing the NHS today”.
“The two issues of absence and staff leaving the profession are clearly interlinked,” she added. “Overwork, burnout and exhaustion from the pandemic are contributing to the current staffing crisis, with staff either leaving or becoming unwell.”
NHS Providers said that “trusts were grappling with over 100,000 vacancies before the pandemic started, and staff absences and persistent workforce shortages – which have worsened over the course of the pandemic – are leaving remaining staff with unsustainably high workloads”, forcing many to “vote with their feet and pursue their careers elsewhere”.
The Royal College of Nurses said that the high absence figures were “yet more evidence of the need for drastic action and investment in the nursing workforce, that has seen thousands leave in the last year alone”.