Downing Street denied hospitals would have to turn patients away – after Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty gave a grim warning to Boris Johnson’s Cabinet and staff leaders spoke out
Hospitals could be overwhelmed in weeks as the Omicron variant sends thousands of NHS staff off sick, Cabinet ministers have reportedly been warned.
Ministers are said to have been told so many doctors and nurses could be off sick by January 15 that those left will struggle even more than now to care for patients.
Likewise ministers were told some pubs, shops and restaurants could have to shut if staff shortages leave them high and dry, according to reports.
The Sun originally reported that ministers were warned some hospitals could have to turn patients away, but this was denied by Downing Street.
The PM’s spokesman insisted there had not been “any discussion or any warning about hospitals or clinical settings having to close as a result of this variant”.
He added: “We have strong measures in place and robust, and now tested, procedures in place to ensure [public services] can continue.”
Latest figures suggest 10 known Omicron patients are in hospital but numbers are expected to surge as more cases are detected.
No10 refused to rule out bringing in more restrictions before Christmas – as Nicola Sturgeon advised Scots to socialise in groups of three households or less at a time.
And MPs on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Covid heard alarming evidence about the rapid spread of Omicron – and how it could hit the NHS this winter.
Hospitals will come under “huge pressure” and are braced for a “significant” number of admissions, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers said.
“We were already beyond full stretch before we got to winter,” he said. “We are now facing the prospect of significant numbers of hospitalisations, probably starting in the next week to two weeks, and then also the fact that we absolutely need to focus on getting this booster vaccination take-up which has got to be the top priority for the next two to three to four weeks.
“Add all of that together, there is a huge amount for pressure on the service.”
Dr Katherine Henderson, who is a consultant in London, raised the alarm over medics testing positive, adding four doctors tested positive on her shift at a hospital yesterday.
Dr Henderson said a pressured situation has become a really pressured situation” amid “regular gaps in rotas”, adding the Government risked losing more nurses if it failed to send a message they were appreciated and needed.
“We need a message that is quite clear how important our nursing staff are,” she said. “They’re leaving the NHS or moving to less pressured posts and I think we we have broken our nursing staff nationally.”
Boris Johnson tonight issued an open letter to NHS staff saying “I know you are tired and weary” and thanking them for turbo-charging the booster rollout.
But Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of British Medical Association, said doctors across the nation are “absolutely exhausted, physically and emotionally” due to the long-term stress of the pandemic and many are experiencing “delayed emotional trauma” from 2020.
He said a survey had revealed 35% of doctors report psychological disorder, 20% want to leave the NHS within the next year and 50% want to reduce hours.
Asked if any modelling had been done on the impact on staffing of essential services, the PM’s spokesman said: “I’m not aware of any monitoring specifically on that.
“I think given the lack of hard data on things like severity, transmissibility and its impact on different vaccines and boosters etcetera, I think that would be hard to model, but obviously I can’t speak for the SPI-M group (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling) who lead on that.”
No10 said a shock model suggesting 200,000 people got infected with Omicron yesterday was “valid” – as the PM warned ministers a “huge spike” is coming.
The warning about hospitals came during the first virtual Cabinet meeting in months, addressed by England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty.
Prof Whitty told ministers to expect a “significant increase in hospitalisations” as cases rise, adding it was too early to say how severe Omicron was.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab insisted Plan B restrictions including mandatory mask-wearing and the use of Covid health certificates for large venues will be sufficient over Christmas, meaning families can “spend it with loved ones”.
But reports overnight have suggested pubs could have entry restrictions and furlough could be brought back.
No10 refused to rule out the measures, calling them “speculation” and “hypothetical” and adding: “We need to learn more about this variant on things like severity before we decide what, if any, action is needed in the future.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman added the government “have the ability” to make changes to restrictions and refused to rule out doing so during MPs’ Christmas break.
A top medic said Covid restrictions could be needed for up to eight weeks if modelling on the impact of the Omicron variant is correct.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said there would need to be “some level of restrictions in place for the next four to eight weeks” if estimates by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) were accurate.
Scientists at LSHTM said the new strain could cause between 25,000 to 75,000 deaths in England over the next five months after examining experimental data.
Prof Whitty told ministers the doubling time for the variant remained between two and three days.
“He said it was too early to say whether cases were reducing or plateauing in South Africa but there was no reliable evidence from South African scientists of a peak in case rates,” a No10 spokesman said.
“He added that it also remained too early to say how severe the Omicron variant was but that we can expect a significant increase in hospitalisations as cases increase.”