THE BRITISH MEDICAL ASSOCIATION (BMA) is calling for front line NHS staff to be provided with stronger respiratory protective equipment such as FFP3 face masks, which offer far greater protection against the airborne particles through which Covid-19 spreads.

The BMA also says further public health measures are needed urgently to prevent the health service being completely overwhelmed.

Commenting on the new Nightingale facilities announced by NHS England, Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair, said: “The Government is once again putting plans into place to attempt to cope with what could be a significant rise in the numbers of patients needing hospital care. However, as with the previous Nightingale plans, there is no real clarity on where the staff will come from to work in these eight sites.

“Even though they are on existing hospital premises, it is not clear how many doctors and other healthcare staff will be needed. There are already over 100,000 staff vacancies in the NHS and we don’t simply have a bank of spare doctors waiting to take up jobs.

“To compound the problem, thousands of healthcare workers are currently infected with Covid-19 and having to isolate. Just before Christmas, over 18,000 staff in acute trusts in England were off either with Covid-19 or because they are self-isolating. This equates to 136 covid-related absences and 465 total off sick for every acute hospital trust in England. That figure is expected to rise when new data is published later this week.

“The Government needs to be absolutely clear about how these Nightingale sites will operate, where the staff might come from and what the impact could be on other healthcare services if doctors and other healthcare professionals are to be diverted from providing non-Covid care and services.

“For staff who are at work, their wellbeing and safety needs to be a priority. The BMA has recently written to all hospital Chief Executives in England urging them to provide front line staff with stronger respiratory protective equipment (RPE) – such as the FFP3 face masks – and conduct risk assessments to ensure staff are properly protected. Doctors and other staff putting themselves forward to work on these Nightingale sites cannot be expected to do so risking their own health, and potentially their lives.”

On New Year’s Eve, figures were published showing that 24,632 staff were absent through Covid-19 sickness of self-isolation at acute NHS hospital trusts in England on Boxing Day. Responding to the figures, Dr Chand Nagpaul BMA council chair, said: “These statistics show the BMA’s repeated warnings about the impact of Omicron on the NHS workforce being realised. Not only are doctors incredibly worried about the rising number of people in hospital with Covid-19 – now at the highest level since early March – but also the health service’s ability to provide vital care to all patients, with more than 24,000 staff now off sick with Covid or self-isolating. That’s the equivalent of 178 staff off work at each acute trust in England.

“At the very time the NHS is standing up hundreds of extra beds in ‘Nightingale’ units to prepare for a surge in hospital admissions, the number of staff absences is rising rapidly – up 31 per cent in a week for acute trusts in England alone – and today’s figures underline the futility of increasing bed capacity with fewer people to staff it.

“Furthermore, these statistics do not take into account staff at GP practices, community hospitals or other healthcare settings, so in reality the number will be much higher – and the impact on patients much further-reaching. With a record backlog in care, we cannot afford to be losing such a high number of staff.

“Meanwhile, our members are increasingly telling us that they cannot access lateral flow or PCR tests, leaving them unable to show a negative test that allows them to work. With widespread shortages, the Government must ensure that key workers are properly prioritised for tests so they can continue working.

“For those who are at work, they need the highest level of protection to stop more of them becoming infected, getting ill and having to take time off. The BMA is calling for staff to be provided with higher grade PPE, like FFP3 masks, which offer far greater protection against the airborne particles through which Covid-19 spreads.

“With Omicron now spreading so rapidly in the community – and daily cases nearing 200,000 – the pressure this is placing on the NHS, through staff absences and rising hospitalisations, is becoming unsustainable. The BMA is clear that further public health measures are needed urgently to prevent the health service being completely overwhelmed, and today’s figures are further evidence why this is needed now.”

* Source: British Medical Association