UK: Number of NHS Doctors Off Sick ‘Nearly Triple Official Estimate’

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LONDON – UK could be significantly underestimating the number of medics going off work due to the COVID-19, according to a survey by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that 5.7% of hospital doctors were off sick or absent because of COVID-19, but a doctors’ survey of more than 2,500 medics found the rate was almost three times that – 14.6%, The Guardian reported.

In recent weeks in London, nearly a third of hospital doctors said they were off work for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 reasons, according to the RCP’s poll of members, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday.

Prof Andrew Goddard, the President of the RCP, stated that the number who had been off work in London “should be a sobering wake-up call” for the rest of the country, with the largest rises in confirmed cases now being outside the capital including in the West Midlands.

Hancock noted the RCP study “wasn’t an accurate representation” and that 8% was the accurate figure for absences among all frontline NHS staff, with the number of doctors off due to COVID-19 being 5.7%.

“Those figures are stable but we want to get them down, and the way to do that is to get the amount of testing up,” Hancock added.

Neither the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) nor NHS Digital have been routinely publishing up-to-date absence figures, unlike the Scottish government which issues daily updates.

As of Saturday, a total of 9,762 NHS staff in Scotland, around 5.9% of the workforce, were reported absent due to reasons related to COVID-19. The DHSC announced on Sunday its latest figures were that about 6.4% of doctors and 8.1% of all NHS staff in England were absent due to COVID-19 either through sickness or self-isolation.

This was based on data from acute trusts with a type 1 A&E, and so does not include figures from about 20 NHS acute specialist and non-specialist trusts that do not have emergency departments. Neither does it include 54 mental health trusts. Goddard said that while it was clear that official and RCP figures emerged from different sources, Hancock’s dismissal of the survey’s findings risked undermining morale.

“Given much of the hospital care of Covid patients is being provided by those responding to the survey – hospital physicians – our data are more than relevant and to dismiss it as wrong does nothing for NHS staff morale,” Goddard added.

“Any doctor’s absence makes the job we are doing tougher. The geographical differences will also be masked by using a figure for all doctors in the NHS. The 30% figure in central London, where Covid has hit first, should be a sobering wake-up call,” Goddard noted.

The survey also highlighted continuing shortages of personal protective equipment for medics, despite repeated claims by ministers that millions of items are being dispatched, including with the help of the military.

It found that 78% of respondents were able to access the necessary equipment, including 79% in London, 73% in the West Midlands and 90% in the Thames Valley. The RCP has told Hancock that the rollout of the essential equipment has not been fast enough.

On testing for the virus, it found that 31% of members could get hold of COVID-19 swabs, while nine out of 10 reported not being able to get a test for a member of their household displaying signs of the virus. In addition, one in 10 reported not being able to get tests for patients who met the criteria. The government has set a target of delivering 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month.

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