Yes, the NHS is facing a crisis… but it’s caused by forcing staff to stay at home, writes oncologist PROFESSOR ANGUS DALGLEISH
For weeks now, doom-mongers have been warning us that the NHS is facing a looming winter crisis, with the added burden of an Omicron surge threatening its ability to care adequately for patients.
The crude figures add to the sense of national panic, with ‘Covid admissions’ rising steadily.
Yesterday we were told there were over 1,300 admissions in England on Tuesday – the highest daily figure since February.
So far the Prime Minister has commendably resisted calls to impose fresh restrictions, but if hospital cases continue upwards, the pressure will mount in the New Year.
For weeks now, doom-mongers have been warning us that the NHS is facing a looming winter crisis, with the added burden of an Omicron surge threatening its ability to care adequately for patients. (File image)
That’s why it is so vital to look a little closer at the data to determine the true picture of what is going on in our hospitals.
Even setting aside the fact the NHS always faces a seasonal surge at this time of the year, you might be surprised by the facts.
For example, figures released only on a weekly basis show that about a third of supposed Covid patients arrived in hospital for other health reasons – and tested positive only once they were on the wards.
Dig a little deeper and the figures say more.
Of those in a hospital bed, and who had Covid, on one day last week, December 21, four out of five of those admitted over the previous week were there for reasons other than the virus.
Given its relatively mild symptoms, but highly infectious nature, I expect this proportion will increase further, with more and more patients arriving for treatment for heart attacks, strokes and serious injuries – without realising they are also carrying Covid.
So far the Prime Minister has commendably resisted calls to impose fresh restrictions, but if hospital cases continue upwards, the pressure will mount in the New Year
That doesn’t mean they do not present complications.
As health chiefs rightly point out, regardless of whether a person arrives in hospital because of Covid, or simply with it, they must still be treated away from general wards to reduce the spread of infections, placing additional pressure on resources.
Which brings us to the real crisis facing the NHS – an emergency that is both largely unnecessary and easy to fix. Many thousands of NHS staff are currently off work after testing positive for Covid.
Figures for December 19 show that almost 19,000 NHS employees in England alone were absent for this reason – up from just over 12,000 a week earlier.
In England, anyone who tests positive for Covid must self-isolate for seven days – an arbitrary period that has only recently been reduced from ten.
The Government is strongly resisting calls to cut this further to five days, which is the rule in America for the asymptomatic.
But I believe it could be even less than that: in many cases, especially in healthy people with proper treatment, the infection can be eradicated in just two or three days.
Put simply, the NHS is hamstrung by Government rules putting countless patients’ lives at risk.
Healthy staff are being banned from returning to work for a week, following a positive test – even if they are symptomless and testing negative on days six and seven of their isolation period.
Without doctors, nurses and other professionals to staff them, hospitals cannot save lives.
Of course, it is important that we protect staff and patients from the spread of serious disease. But we have to respond to the facts as they are now, not as they were a year or two ago.
Omicron is not much worse than any normal airborne infection of the upper respiratory tract of the kind that circulate all the time.
It’s high time Boris Johnson cut the isolation period to five days – and stopped inflicting needless damage on the NHS. The ability of doctors and nurses to save lives may depend on it
Serious illness from Omicron is unlikely for anyone double-jabbed and boosted, except in cases where patients are already so frail and vulnerable that any slight infection is dangerous – for example, in the very elderly.
And while there are over 750 Covid patients in intensive care, this is far below the 3,700 we saw in January.
As well as vaccinations, previous Covid infections appear to give excellent immunity.
At the London teaching hospital where I work treating cancer, I have seen no cases where people become seriously ill from catching the virus a second time.
A third infection is usually no more than a sniffle, if that.
Happily, the virus is fast evolving into something comparable to the common cold. Most people, including doctors and nurses, catch colds during winter.
It’s a nuisance, but we don’t shut down society or hospitals for it. To do so is little short of madness.
Now it’s high time Boris Johnson woke up to all this, cut the isolation period to five days – and stopped inflicting needless damage on the NHS.
The ability of doctors and nurses to save lives may depend on it.
Professor Angus Dalgleish is an oncologist at a London teaching hospital.
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