In Brief

‘National crisis’: quarter of NHS doctors already sick or self-isolating

Staff numbers under growing pressure as virus also hits ambulance workers and nurses

Around one in four NHS doctors are off work because they are sick or in isolation, as reports emerge that shortages of protective gear were predicted more than a decade ago.

A quarter of doctors are now away from frontline work, either with coronavirus or because a family member or housemate was ill, according to the British Medical Association (BMA).

The GMB union has further reported that ambulance services also have thousands of staff absent, describing the situation a “national crisis”.

Nurses are also seeing their numbers strained, with The Royal College of Nursing reporting that around one in five nurses had taken time off work to self-isolate.

“This is really impacting a lot in emergency departments and London is in a much worse position than elsewhere at the moment, but it will come to other places,” Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, told Sky News.

This was echoed by Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the BMA, who told The Times: “We are still being contacted by large numbers of other doctors, frustrated at having to self-isolate, asking when and how they will be able to get tested.”

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The government has insisted that personal protective equipment (PPE) is a priority and being sent to hospitals as fast as possible, however, frontline staff continue to complain of severe shortages.

The Times reports the Cabinet Office first identified that a pandemic would lead to a “pinch point” in the availability of PPE for doctors in 2008.

Simulations of flu-like pandemics were carried out in 2007-08 as part of planning for future outbreaks. Health service chiefs were instructed by the Cabinet Office at the time to factor access issues with protective kit in to that planning, the paper says.

Russell King, a resilience manager in the NHS at the time, told The Times: “The Cabinet Office had identified the availability and distribution of PPE as a pinch point in a pandemic... It was already part of the national assumption.”

In an effort to stem rising staffing issues, foreign NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics will have their work visas automatically extended for a year free of charge so they can “focus on fighting coronavirus”.

The move, announced yesterday by Home Secretary Priti Patel, applies to around 2,800 medical staff from overseas whose permits expire before 1 October.

Patel said: “Doctors, nurses and paramedics from all over the world are playing a leading role in the NHS’s efforts to tackle coronavirus and save lives. We owe them a great deal of gratitude for all that they do.

“I don’t want them distracted by the visa process. That is why I have automatically extended their visas – free of charge – for a further year.”

The Independent says restrictions on the amount of hours student nurses and doctors can work in the NHS have also been lifted, and pre-registered overseas nurses are being given more time to pass their exams.

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