NHS frontline staff battling Omicron Covid surge struggling to cope in ‘war zone’



The NHS is in the grips of a major crisis as staff are forced to isolate with Covid just as infections from the virus soar to record levels.

The dangerous situation the buckling health service finds itself in has been caused by the surging level of Covid patients and a huge rise in hospital staff being absent.

One in 15 people in England now has the disease, according to the latest official research – up from one in 25 the previous week.

Despite the predicament facing hospitals, Boris Johnson is resisting any more stringent Covid measures, instead intending to rely on Plan B to “ride out” the Omicron wave.

The Mirror has been on the frontline with struggling staff up and down the country, with one union chief saying some patients are waiting 24 hours for an ambulance currently.

Joanne Harrison and John Thompson from Trowbridge, Wiltshire, whose daughter is in the Royal United Hospital Bath after suffering appendicitis
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Bath

Joanne Harrison, 41, from Trowbridge, Wiltshire, said she had to drive her sick daughter to hospital herself because she was told an ambulance would take six hours.

Speaking outside The Royal United Hospital in Bath, which has had to suspended visits for relatives due to Covid-19, she said: “My daughter had severe stomach pains so I phoned 111 and they said an ambulance could take up to six hours.

“We couldn’t believe it but know the pressure they must be under so drove her in ourselves. When we got here there was a queue of five or six ambulances outside.

“My nine-year-old is undergoing an operation to removed her appendix today so we’ve come for that.

“It seems like the staff in the hospital are coping well but I think it’s the ambulances that just can’t cope, I think they need more help.”

A handful of hospitals in the south west of England have declared a critical incidents due to COVID-19 with more expected to follow suit.

Many have also suspended visits for relatives and caregivers as the NHS in the region struggles to cope with more than 6,000 members of staff absent from work through sickness or isolation.

Around one third of those absences were directly related to Covid-19.

Hospitals have faced staff shortages due to Covid-19
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Doncaster

Seven ambulances lined up outside Doncaster Royal Infirmary on Wednesday afternoon as workers claim patients have been waiting in the vehicles up to seven hours before a bed is free in A&E.

Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals have been caring for 106 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and last week had around 560 staff off sick.

An ambulance worker told The Mirror on Wednesday: “I’ve seen patients waiting for five to seven hours in the back of ambulances. They are the low priority ones.

“The nurses do come out and check on them but they are run off their feet, bless them.

“If it gets that long they are then diverted but the crews are amazing and cope with it really well.

“I think what’s happening is that before people were frightened to come into hospital because of Covid but that’s gone now so there’s a backlog of people needing help.”

Anthony Jones, who is the Deputy Director of People and Organisational Development at Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals, said: “With the increase in the number of Covid-19 cases within our communities, we have also seen a rise in the number of staff who are required to isolate.

Seven ambulances lined up outside Doncaster Royal Infirmary

“Colleagues at DBTH are working hard through the challenges of high levels of sickness absence due to Covid-19, ensuring that our patients continue to receive care. I wish to commend them for their resilience during this time and urge our local communities to help where possible.

“The public can play their part in helping to reduce the pressure on their local health services by protecting themselves from Covid-19 with the first, second and booster vaccines which is the best defence against becoming seriously ill from the virus.

“You can also help to stop the spread of the virus by isolating when you are symptomatic or you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, and by practicing hands face space when you are out and about.

“All of these measures will help to reduce the number of admissions to our hospitals and reduce the strain on our workforce.”

Victoria Hospital in Blackpool declared a critical incident
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Blackpool

Patients at Blackpool Victoria Hospital have described A&E as a ‘madhouse’ and a ‘war zone’.

Outside an interactive screen warned patients that there was a 217 minute wait to be triaged.

Frank Nanson, 86, a retired engineer from Lytham St Annes had come to see the results of an MRI after dislocating his shoulder, but was told they were unavailable due to ‘Covid delays’.

He said: “The effect of Covid slowing things down is clear. It didn’t seem too bad today in outpatients but I know it’s a madhouse in A&E.”

Sharing her experience on Facebook, Kristina Pissoir wrote: “It was literally like a war zone and the nurse told me then that it wasn’t even a busy day.”

Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust has banned visitors and is one of 12 Trusts to declare a “critical incident”.

Frank Nanson faced delays when he went to Victoria Hospital
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Staff leaving the hospital could be overheard discussing whether they should even be working after “suffering with a cough” and hadn’t yet been able to do a PCR test.

One staff member said she had only just returned to work after having Covid for two weeks.

Another patient, who did not wish to be named, was having treatment for a sprained ankle.

He said: “There was a line of people with tubes and on trolleys waiting in the corridor to be seen.

“There’s people in A&E that have been sitting there for eight or nine hours.

“I’ve heard nurses say ‘I’ve got to go because I’ve been called over to another ward because they’re short staffed there’.”

On Tuesday an internal critical incident was declared at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust which is responsible for Blackpool Victoria Hospital and two smaller community hospitals – Clifton Hospital and Fleetwood Hospital.

In a memo, Trish Armstrong-Child, chief executive of Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said more people are being admitted to hospital each day than are being discharged and high staff sickness absence levels were impacting day to day operations.

A patient arrives at Victoria Hospital in Blackpool
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Bolton

Medical chiefs in Greater Manchester have told of the pressure the service is under due to covid.

Francis Andrews, the medical director for the Royal Bolton Hospital, one of 17 in which has had to cancel non-urgent ops in the region, said: “We are under pressure. A&E is very busy. The wards are busy because we have a lot of Covid patients in.

“We are still doing a lot of emergency work and we are still doing cancer work as well.”

Mr Andrews, who is also an A&E consultant at the hospital, said: “I think it is fair to say the staff are under a lot pressure. They are doing their very best. I believe they are delivering excellent patient care despite all the pressures.

“I think the biggest pressure we’ve got is actually staffing because round about 12% of our staff are off sick. That is more than double the normal figures for the winter time in the NHS.

“Some of them will be isolating, some of them will have Covid and some of them will have normal sickness as well.”

Francis Andrews, medical director at Bolton Royal Hospital
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He added: “On behalf of Greater Manchester we are extremely sorry that we have had to make a very difficult decision to temporarily pause non-urgent operations.

“What we would wish to say is that although they are described as non-urgent operations, those operations are still very important to people.

They affect people’s lives and particularly the quality of lives.

“The sorts of operating we are talking about is for example a planned hip operation, or a planned knee replacement. It might be an operation for a hernia for example.

“What I would like to emphasise to your readers is we are doing all cancer operations. We are doing all urgent surgery as well.”

Ambulances at Bolton Royal Hospital
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Gateshead

A paramedic at the service urging patients to get a lift to hospital has lifted the lid on the crisis facing 999 staff.

North East Ambulance chiefs made the unprecedented plea due to high demand and low staffing levels caused by coronavirus.

In Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital suffered long queues of emergency vehicles over Christmas. Five ambulances and an emergency paramedic car lined up there yesterday.

One paramedic told the Mirror: “At the QE over Christmas, we were queuing up every time we took a patient. It is bed blocking, when the hospital is full. It is horrendous, they have nowhere to put patients.

“That’s where the problem lies. You have to wait your turn and it can take hours. That affects the waiting time for patients on emergency calls because ambulances are standing outside A&E.

“The first wave was terrible, you had people who could not breathe and they were dying in front of you. They were gasping their last, we were giving them oxygen but there was nothing you could do for them.

“I am a changed person because of what I have seen. Before Christmas, I was broken, running on adrenalin. I was not the only one. In the NHS, we tend to be forgotten. We really are on the frontline, the first to see Covid patients.”

The source added: “You may have a dementia patient, confused and upset, in the ambulance queuing up. We get messages via control if a hospital is full. You can travel miles to find a bed.”

A recent dispute hit morale when NEAS medics were criticised over 30-minute meal breaks. “In the West End of Newcastle a passing motorist shouted ‘murderers’ at a crew,” said the source. “Another guy was asked: ‘are you on your break?’ at the QE. We work 12 hour shifts and our breaks are unpaid.”

North East Ambulance Service is still asking patients suffering from suspected strokes or heart attacks to get relatives to drive them to hospital.

Medical director, Dr Mathew Beattie, said the service was dealing with increased demand over the new year, as well as staff sickness linked to the Omicron variant.

He added: “Under normal circumstances, we would move up and down our clinical escalation levels reactively as each point is triggered or demand reduces.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision, but when patients are waiting an average of an hour for an ambulance that should be responding within 18 minutes, there is a risk for them coming to harm if they cannot get to hospital quickly.”

No patient harm has been identified as a result of the decision, Dr Beattie said.

A North East Ambulance Service spokesperson said: “We would like to thank our teams for their incredible work during the most challenging period ever for our service.

“We are currently experiencing some of the highest handover times we’ve ever seen, which is a symptom of the pressures that hospitals are facing with their own demand for beds. We continue to work closely with them to try and relieve demand in a bid to ensure patients are seen as quickly as possible.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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