To cope with an Omicron-driven rise in Covid patients, the NHS may construct up “field hospitals” in hospital car parks staffed partially by army medics.
If the new variation causes widespread illness, hospital canteens, offices, and meeting rooms may be used as makeshift wards.
NHS England has ordered hospital chiefs to plan both actions in the next weeks as part of a set of initiatives to help the “super-surge” service. It will only order such drastic and unprecedented actions if Omicron causes even more people with Covid to need treatment than in January.
The ideas, initially reported by the Health Service Journal, come amid growing concerns that the NHS's response to Omicron will be hampered by sick workers with Covid.
The highly transmissible new variety is fueling the greatest absence rates in the NHS since the pandemic began, medical leaders said on Wednesday.
The Royal College of Physicians reported 10.5 percent of doctors absent. In London, one in every seven doctors is off (13.9 percent ).
The RCP says more people are missing work, leaving “exhausted and demoralised” ward staff having to cope with additional cases and the winter constraints.
The RCP believes the high doctor absence rate is attributable to widespread community infection and rapid transmission of the Omicron strain.
“Absence is the worst we've seen during the pandemic,” said RCP president Dr Andrew Goddard. The exhausted and demoralised team has been managing the epidemic for almost two years, plus the regular winter surge in other respiratory problems.
NHS England has advised hospitals to prepare for a surge in Covid cases requiring inpatient care in January. HSJ stated the new facilities will be big tents that could care for up to 100 patients.
It reports one NHS leader as calling the new facilities “lots of mini Nightingales,” referring to the seven field hospitals built up last year in England to help with the March Covid outbreak. They were rarely utilised and were mothballed.
They would presumably be used for the least sick, with existing hospitals handling the sickest, including those needing oxygen to breathe.
A source familiar with the plans said they will be manned by a mix of clinical and non-clinical employees.
On Tuesday, NHS England informed hospital chiefs via regional conference calls. It expects Army medical personnel to assist, though the HSJ said no formal request had been made.
Staff from clinical commissioning groups, the local NHS organisations that commission and pay for health services, will also be requested to assist.
One hospital executive said it was already talking to administrative personnel about what roles they may play if Omicron caused havoc.
As a result of hospitals having too few employees to send everyone on secondment to the newly constructed facilities, NHS leaders are trying to sort out who will do what in existing and field hospitals.
Medical leaders urged the public to be cautious over the festive month, warning that rising infection levels might lead to a “very dangerous” staffing shortage.
“NHS colleagues will always be available to help, but we shouldn't be here,” Goddard added. I believe we would have many more physicians, nurses, and other professionals if the NHS workforce was properly planned.
Vaccinations and boosters should be scheduled as soon as possible, since we do not have that capacity. And while we all look forward to spending time with loved ones this year, we should be cautious about how many individuals we mix with in the coming weeks. But if we aren't careful, the number of available health and care professionals could decline to very dangerous levels.”
In order to ease staff shortages, the government has reduced self-isolation for coronavirus patients from 10 days to one week.