The government has been warned it cannot “just wait to ride this out” and must do three things to relieve unprecedented pressure on the NHS.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association, told Sky News, “we have never known this level of staff absence before” amid the continuing spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Some 200 armed forces personnel are to be deployed to support the NHS in London as hospitals grapple with staff shortages.
The Royal College of Nursing has said the deployment means the government can no longer deny there is a “staffing crisis” within the NHS.
As of Thursday, 17 hospital trusts in England had declared critical incidents – signalling there are fears that priority services cannot be safely delivered.
“I’m a GP, I’ve never known it this bad,” Dr Nagpaul said.
“We’re having to literally contact patients without notice that the staff member or a doctor or nurse just isn’t in today because they’re self-isolating.
“This is not normal, and therefore, the government does need to recognise this is clearly an NHS under extreme pressure and the living reality sadly for thousands of patients is that they’re suffering the consequences of such pressures and also staff absence.”
Dr Nagpaul said it was vital that the government “doesn’t just wait to ride this out, because every day people are suffering”.
Ministers must take three steps to help the NHS
“One is we do need to bring down levels of Omicron infections in the community because healthcare staff and frontline key staff, just members of the general population, if you have such high levels of Omicron, over 200,000 on many days last week on a daily basis, you will have NHS staff and other staff isolating and off ill, it’s as simple as that,” Dr Nagpaul said.
“The second thing is we need to ensure that those of us who are working on the front line who are mixing with patients who are infectious, need to be properly protected.
“And one of the things we’ve been calling for is higher grade masks that can filtrate the airborne spread of COVID-19 and Omicron as opposed to the normal paper surgical masks that don’t.
“The third thing is to actually make sure we do have ready access to lateral flow tests, because of course it’s having that negative test on day six and seven that has allowed healthcare staff to return to work after seven days of isolation rather than 10 days.
“But in some instances we’re still hearing of healthcare staff unable to access the tests because their local pharmacy has run out of stocks and so forth.”
Speaking during a visit to a vaccination centre on Thursday, Boris Johnson acknowledged the NHS was under “huge pressure” at the moment, but said it is “not true” that the health service does not have enough staff to cope with the pressures it is facing.