As many as 26,240 staff were off work with Covid-19 or self-isolating on Christmas Eve in NHS acute trusts in England, data has shown.
The figures, published by NHS England, revealed that Covid was the cause of 38% of the total 69,956 staff absences that day.
It also showed that 24,632 staff were still sick with Covid or self-isolating on Boxing Day.
These statistics do not account for staff at GP practices, community hospitals or other healthcare settings, which the BMA suggested would bring the total ‘much higher’.
Responding to the new data, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: ‘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.’
It comes two weeks after the BMA estimated that around 32,000 staff across the whole NHS would be off sick on Christmas Day if the Government did not introduce restrictions in response to the Omicron variant.
The BMA is now calling for the Government to supply high-grade FFP3 masks for staff coming into contact with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases, and FFP2 masks for all other patient-facing staff.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘Health leaders are doing everything they can to keep services running and it is reassuring that more patients who are medically fit for discharge have been able to leave hospital to free up much needed beds.’
He added that the Government seems ‘determined not to increase restrictions’ in England and called on leaders to ‘behave in ways that will not exacerbate an already dangerous situation’.
GPs need access to testing
Complications brought about by absent staff have been compounded by poor access to Covid testing.
Responding to reports of a shortage of lateral flow tests, Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the RCGP, said that Covid testing is ‘key’ to ensuring GPs and other healthcare professionals can deliver frontline patient care.
He said: ‘Staff becoming sick or having to isolate due to testing positive for Covid is already a significant problem in general practice at a time when we need all hands on deck to deliver the booster vaccination campaign and essential patient care and services.’
The NHS ‘cannot afford’ to keep healthcare staff away from work ‘simply because they cannot access a test’, he added.
And the BMA claimed the way in which key workers are given priority for lateral flow and PCR tests ‘isn’t working’, after reporting similar concerns from their members.
‘The NHS is already struggling to manage patient demand and to have staff not knowing whether they can go to work because they cannot get tested is bound to make that situation even worse,’ it said.
An NHS email bulletin sent to GPs last week (30 December) said practices can access a ‘significant contingency supply’ by contacting their regional testing lead.
It said: ‘If you are experiencing delays in receiving testing kits please work with your commissioner who can put you in contact with your regional testing lead, to ensure that staff can be tested and return to work, when safe to do so.’
It comes after the trade union Unison said NHS staff were being ‘wrung dry by pandemic pressures’, after it found that more than two-thirds are experiencing burnout.