NHS crisis: Dr Hilary Jones reads out messages from doctors
The NHS is typically placed under extreme pressure during winter – January in particular – but amid soaring waiting times for emergency care, a “twindemic” of rising coronavirus and flu cases, and as nurses and ambulances staff across the country go on strike, health bosses are warning of the worst crisis in the history of the service. Alongside the potentially life-threatening consequences for the public, NHS staff are also feeling the strain, as the latest data show mental health issues are regularly the most common reason for sickness absences.
Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine claimed this week that “somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying as a consequence of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care each week.”
The latest data show the proportion of A&E admissions waiting over four hours to receive treatment has reached an unprecedented 31.1 percent. There are currently over seven million people in total waiting for NHS care in England alone.
In the week leading up to Christmas, the number of flu patients occupying hospital beds soared just under 80 percent on the week before, as coronavirus cases also increased – NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis saying “our fears of a ‘twindemic’ have been realised”.
In December, members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) nationwide walked out for two days for the first time in their history, in what the union’s General Secretary Pat Cullen sold to nurses as a “once in a generation chance to improve your pay and combat staff shortages” – and are set to do so again on January 18 and 19.
Psychiatric ills are the most common reason for NHS staff taking days off sick
In both the immediate and the long term, these symptoms of an NHS now commonly deemed to be “broken” are taking a toll on frontline staff.
There was an average of over 60,000 absences due to sickness every day during one week of mid-December, up almost a fifth from the previous month.
The latest data from NHS Digital show a sickness absence rate of five percent in August last year – representing just over two million working days lost – higher than the same month’s rate every year of the past decade outside of the pandemic.
Among all groups, support to ambulance staff reported the highest absence rate of all, at 8.8 percent, followed by support to doctors, nurses and midwives (7.1 percent) and ambulance staff proper (6.6 percent).
READ MORE: NHS staff shortages laid bare in England
The reasons given for taking sick days reveal the consequences of staff exhaustion and demoralisation. Data show anxiety, stress, and depression are consistently the most frequently reported causes for sickness absence among NHS staff.
Last August, over a quarter of all absences, 25.5 percent, were due to staff mental health-related concerns – a significant increase from July’s 20.9 percent.
Since records began in 2019, the rate has only dropped below 20 percent for one month – peaking at 32.4 percent at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in July 2020.
Midwives reported the highest rate of all staff groups, at 32.4 percent, relative to 27.1 percent for ambulance staff and 24.1 percent for nurses.
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Ambulance workers staged a walkout over pay and conditions on December 21
An NHS specialist paramedic this week described present working conditions
“The pace of work is relentless and the emotional and mental toll is massive,” he told Express.co.uk. “There is no time to decompress or reflect, you start second guessing yourself because you’re exhausted, you’re driving around on blue lights tired, crossing your legs with patients because you need the toilet – all of that inevitably takes a toll on you,” he added.
Speaking to ITV Wales last month, agency nurse Charlene Evans said: “We’re going to work with the best intentions – we’re there to make a difference, we’re there to make them well.
“We can’t do that now, and we’re leaving our job crying because we’re doing our best physically and mentally but we can’t do what we know should be done for them.”
Desperate working conditions and dwindling paychecks – as inflation hovers around its highest level in four decades – are creating an ever-more-serious staff retention and recruitment problem for the NHS.
Despite the fact that the latest NHS Digital figures show there are now a record 1.25 million full-time workers within NHS trusts and commissioning bodies in England, vacancy statistics reveal well over 100,000 positions remain unfilled.
On Tuesday, in his first major speech of the New Year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was “taking urgent action” to fix the country’s ailing healthcare system, pledging extra funding and an increase in hospital bed numbers.
On Friday, the RCN’s General Secretary reportedly suggested that the union was willing to meet the Government “halfway” and accept a ten percent pay rise offer. Until the then, Ms Cullen had maintained the membership wouldn’t accept anything less than 19 percent – a raise Health Secretary Steve Barclay and Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer alike have described as unaffordable.