NHS hospitals in London face a ‘wicked combination’ of ‘unprecedented’ staff sickness rates and an ‘explosion’ in patient demand because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Chris Hopson, a senior NHS figure, said hospital bosses are seeing a ‘continuous tsunami’ of demand as the crisis worsens daily.
At the same time, up to 50 per cent of staff are off sick because they either have to self-isolate with symptoms or are in vulnerable groups.
Health chiefs are rushing to expand critical care capacity as the peak of the coronavirus looms.
But Mr Hopson said the new 4,000 beds at NHS Nightingale, at the ExCel centre, will be used up ‘very, very quickly’.
London is the centre of the UK’s outbreak, with a third of all cases – 3,247 as of March 25.
Mr Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers – which represents care trusts – told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on today: ‘They are struggling with two things.
‘The first is the explosion of demand they are seeing in seriously ill patients.
‘They talk about wave after wave after wave – the word that’s often used to me is a continuous tsunami.
‘We are now seeing 30 per cent, 40 per cent and indeed in some places 50 per cent sickness rates as staff catch the virus or are in vulnerable groups or have to self-isolate.
‘That’s unprecedented absence rate.
‘So what we have got is a really wicked combination – trusts trying to deal with a lot more demand than they have ever had before with a lot fewer staff than they have had before.’
Mr Hopson said that, while extra capacity is being brought in – including 4,000 beds at the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands – hospital chief executives are concerned that it will be used up ‘very, very quickly’.
To accommodate rising numbers of Covid-19 patients, the Ministry of Defence and NHS are creating other new hospitals from scratch in Manchester and Birmingham.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said 500 of the additional 4,000 beds created in the NHS Nightingale Hospital being set up in London’s ExCeL centre will be available for use next week.
But speaking on the same programme, a leading expert said he believes the health system has the capacity to cope and that the lockdown will lead to a ‘plateau’ of case numbers.
Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College said: ‘So we are going to have a very difficult few weeks, particularly in hotspots – London for instance.
‘But we think, overall, with the capacity which is rapidly being put in place across the country, that whilst the health system will be intensely stressed, particularly in areas of London, it won’t break.
‘Perhaps in about three weeks we hope these current measures will start flattening that curve and start bringing numbers down.’
The number of COVID-19 cases is nearing towards 10,000, and the death toll 500. But government officials expect cases to be more in the region of 40-50,000.
NHS Providers said testing for medics has become a top priority as the coronavirus spreads further.
A statement today also said it was focusing on getting protective clothing (PPE) to all NHS workers, amid an ongoing row about failings to provide it quickly enough.
Its deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said there was ‘mounting concern’ among NHS staff that World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance on protective equipment was being watered down.
She called for urgent clarification about recent changes in the next 48 hours and added: ‘Ensuring NHS staff have confidence in the equipment they work with is an absolute priority for trust leaders.
‘There are mounting concerns about the changes to the guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE), with a widespread perception among staff that the approach recommended by the World Health Organisation has in some ways been watered down.
‘We know this is causing huge anxiety for frontline staff whose priority is to keep their patients and themselves safe.’