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At least 77,000 hospital staff in England caught coronavirus during the pandemic, while there were nearly a quarter of a million absences for Covid-related reasons, Guardian research has revealed.
However, the true totals are likely to be much higher, because out of the 142 acute and specialist trusts in England sent freedom of information requests, only 55% (78) provided figures on staff who were infected, while 60% (85) gave data on time off for sick leave related to the virus.
The responses, which cover the year following 1 March 2020, offer the first official data on Covid’s impact on frontline workers who risked their own health while caring for the more than 400,000 patients who have ended up seriously ill in hospital.
They show that at least 77,735 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel contracted Covid, while staff had 243,864 periods of absence – either because they had the disease or were isolating, quarantining or shielding – exacerbating existing workforce shortages.
Of the trusts sent requests, 75 (53%) provided figures on infected staff who went on to die of Covid, totalling 152 deaths. This appears to underestimate the total, given that ministers have already acknowledged at least 305 deaths involving Covid-19 among healthcare workers.
NHS bosses and health trade unions claim many of those who fell ill became infected because hospitals had too little personal protective equipment (PPE) and capacity to test workers.
“This is a stark realisation of just how hard the pandemic has hit nursing staff who from the very beginning were working without adequate protection,” said Jude Diggins, the Royal College of Nursing’s interim director of nursing, policy and public affairs.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of hospitals group NHS Providers, said: “While the situation has improved significantly in recent months, we know trusts faced major challenges at the beginning of the pandemic with regards to accessing PPE and rapid, regular and reliable testing, as well as significant numbers of staff having Covid-19 without showing symptoms.”
Many staff are still suffering lingering physical and mental effects of having had Covid, warned Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison.
“NHS and care employees have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Their work caring for Covid patients has been stressful, traumatising and exhausting. Many now struggle with poor mental health, others with the effects of long Covid,” she said.
The high rates of Covid infection among staff raise concerns that even more could become infected in future. While most health service personnel in England have received their first dose of the vaccine, the latest figures showed that 168,449 out of the 1,378,502 workers directly employed by the NHS – 12% of the total – still have not done so.
“Now with the new variant of the virus spreading it is vital that nursing staff who will be needed to care for increases in cases are properly protected to prevent them from being put at risk,” said Diggins.
Out of those trusts who responded, Frimley health trust in Surrey had the largest number of staff who caught the virus – 4,464 – followed by Guy’s and St Thomas’ in London (3,654) and University Hospitals Birmingham (2,554).
Liverpool University Hospitals recorded 14,139 “episodes of absence” at its four hospitals among staff due to Covid or isolation – by far the highest number at any trust. The trust said that it has had to deal with three surges of Covid – last spring, last autumn and earlier this year – compared with two in most of the rest of the country. The trust came close to being overwhelmed last October.
Lancashire teaching hospitals reported 10,897 episodes of absence – the second largest number.
At Shrewsbury and Telford an average of 205 full-time equivalent staff were absent from work every day due to Covid, which equated to 7,442 absences. Workers were off because they had Covid symptoms, had tested positive for Covid, were “shielding” to protect their health, were isolating because someone in their household had symptoms, were in quarantine after returning from abroad or had been told to isolate by test and trace.
Coronavirus has badly affected frontline personnel and left hospitals even more short-staffed than usual during the pandemic, Hopson said.
“Staff sickness and self-isolation levels due to Covid are now thankfully falling. But we mustn’t underestimate the relentless physical, psychological and emotional pressure the NHS workforce has been under over the past 15 months and the toll this has taken on a workforce, which was already facing over 100,000 vacancies when the pandemic started,” he said.
Source: The Guardian
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