Thank you for contacting me about protecting the NHS as we face the Omicron variant.
Together with the incredible effort to deliver booster vaccinations, the response to Plan B and the range of treatments available, we are fortunately in a very different position than during previous waves. The UK has bought more antivirals per person than anywhere else in Europe.
Even though data demonstrates that Omicron causes lower rates of hospitalisations, given the extremely high number of cases, it is resulting in high numbers of hospitalisations.
This is thankfully not translating into the same numbers needing intensive care that we have seen in the past. It is also concerning that case rates are rising rapidly among the older and more vulnerable, with the risk that this will continue to increase pressures on the NHS.
As such, it is right that the Government does all it can to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed and I warmly welcome ongoing action to ensure patients can access the care they need. NHS capacity is being increased by building onsite Nightingale hospitals and creating 2,500 virtual beds where people can be safely treated at home. Investment in NHS 111 is also helping to reduce congestion in A&E.
Volunteers are being mobilised, through the NHS Reserves, and military support can be requested to support NHS Trusts, I know that the Government has worked closely with the NHS, local authorities and social care to stress test and stretch every available route to securing the maximum possible capacity across the NHS. For my part, I continue to monitor the local situation closely, and will work to ensure our local health service gets the support it needs.
Even before the latest wave, the NHS has increased capacity and changed ways of working to respond to the pandemic. There are now 19,600 more professionally qualified clinical staff in NHS Trusts and CCGs than in September 2020, the number of beds has increased by 5,000 in the last year and oxygen capacity has doubled.
GPs have been asked to prioritise vaccinations, urgent or emergency care, and other critical services such as cancer. This unfortunately means some patients may face longer waits for an appointment, however I can assure you that any changes to GP working arrangements are time limited. This also does not mean that GP practices are closed and people should not delay coming forward if they have health concerns.
We are likely to see a number of acute hospital trusts declaring a critical incident. Critical incidents are a significant escalation that can last for as little as a few hours or be more prolonged depending on the specific circumstances. They allow Trusts to access further support, and are a way of ensuring that the local NHS can continue to best serve patients. Part of declaring an incident is to ensure that critical services remain available for local people.
Extensive support for the NHS workforce was put in place at the start of the pandemic, and this support is still in place. This includes guidance on staffing requirements at times of exceptional demand. However, because of the high levels of Omicron in the community, data for acute trusts up to 2nd January show absences at around 8 per cent. This is broadly comparable to absence rates in January 2021 (which was for all trusts), but a normal rate of absence is just under 5 per cent. Absence rates will have risen further over the last week as cases continue to rise and are likely to continue to increase in the short-term. I know the Government are monitoring the situation in the workforce very closely.
The NHS and social care are working together to significantly reduce delayed discharges from its peak of over 11,000 patients on 16 December. It is encouraging that the Government has established a Taskforce to bring together the NHS, local authorities and the social care system to revitalise best practice on hospital discharge and deliver additional capacity so that people can be safely discharged, as well as encouraging new models of care.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP