RCP’s thirteenth survey of members and fellows during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that absence due to illness is rising, particularly in London.
Across the UK, more than 1 in 10 (10.5%) doctors are off work and 1 in 24 (4.2%) due to COVID. In London these figures increase to 1 in 7 (13.9%) off work and 1 in 13 (7.4%) due to COVID. The RCP’s survey found that staff absence is growing, with absences in London comparable to the start of the pandemic, only this time further exacerbated by exhausted and demoralised staff working under the extreme pressure of rising COVID-19 cases coupled with usual winter illnesses.
The high absence rate among doctors is likely to be due to the high community levels of infection and rapid transmission of the Omicron variant. Of those off work, 18% had suspected or proven COVID-19 and 19% were isolating due to having contact with cases.
Further concern was raised with issues accessing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Across the whole of the UK, 14.5% of respondents felt they didn’t have the PPE they needed to wear for managing patients with COVID-19. 6.5% said they had been in a situation in the past two weeks where they had not been able to access the PPE that the UK Health Security Agency advises.
However, the RCP’s survey found that almost all UK doctors were protected by a COVID-19 vaccination. 99% received two primary course doses of a COVID-19 vaccination. 96% have also received a booster and 2% have arranged to have it.
Much of the pressure on medical staff is due to a lack of workforce – a problem that existed long before the pandemic. With too few staff including one in two consultant vacancies unfilled, absences more acutely affect a hospital’s capacity to deliver COVID and non-COVID care. The RCP is urging the government to commit to a funded long-term workforce plan that sets out how many health and care staff are needed to meet demand for care and strategies to improve recruitment and retention. Publishing and implementing a national workforce strategy would provide hope to health care staff now that staffing levels – and the pressure caused by understaffing – will improve in the near future.
Andrew Goddard, president of the RCP, said: “With 1 in 24 doctors off work due to COVID-19, rising to 1 in 13 in London, absence is the worst we have seen during the pandemic other than at the end of March 2020. But at that point we didn’t have access to the PPE we needed, we had cancelled almost all other activity, it was spring and we were dealing with a less transmissible strain of COVID-19.
“Today, we have a tired and demoralised workforce that has been managing the impact of the pandemic for almost two years, we are trying to deliver as much non-COVID care as possible and we have the usual winter rise in other respiratory conditions. At the same time, many colleagues are taking well-earned holiday to spend some time with their families and friends over Christmas.
“One of our survey respondents summed it up well when they said, ‘I’m not sure I’m ready to do this again, but we will.’ NHS colleagues will always be ready to do what is needed, but we needn’t be in this situation. If we had proper NHS workforce planning, taking into account current and likely future demand, I predict we would have many more thousand doctors, nurses and other clinicians.
“As we don’t have that capacity, we urge everyone to arrange to have their vaccinations and boosters as soon as possible. And while we are all looking forward to time with loved ones this year, we need to think very carefully about the number of people we mix with over the next couple of weeks. That’s not a message people want to hear and not one it’s easy to deliver, but if we aren’t cautious, we risk the number of available health and care staff falling to very dangerous levels.”