Covid Scotland: Nearly 600 ambulance staff absent as emergency services and health service bear brunt

Nearly 600 members of staff at the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) are now absent due to Covid-19 related reasons, with the under-pressure frontline service turning to bank and relief staff in an effort to fill shifts.

Some 597 employees of the SAS were off on Wednesday due to either contracting Covid-19 or having to self-isolate. The figure stood at 243 on Boxing Day, and just under 500 at the weekend.

A spokeswoman for the service said it had been able to cover more than 95 per cent of accident and emergency shifts due to additional resourcing, and has planned to fill “every shift where possible” through rostered and relief staff, overtime or bank staff.

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She added: “To ensure we maintain patient safety, we are already working alongside our partner agencies to protect service delivery and staff welfare.

“Accelerated recruitment through our demand and capacity programme continues and will increase the number of new staff to 566 by March 2022.”

The Scottish Fire & Rescue Service (SFRS) separately confirmed it had 696 Covid-related absences on Wednesday, up from 479 on Friday last week.

The figure comes as the Fire Brigades Union confirmed similar staff absences had in England left at least one fire station unmanned and several with engines unavailable.

However, Ross Haggart, SFRS deputy chief officer, said: "We have robust contingency plans in place to ensure we can continue to respond to emergencies.

Nearly 600 members of staff at the Scottish Ambulance Service are absent due to Covid-19. Picture: JPI MediaNearly 600 members of staff at the Scottish Ambulance Service are absent due to Covid-19. Picture: JPI Media
Nearly 600 members of staff at the Scottish Ambulance Service are absent due to Covid-19. Picture: JPI Media

"Staffing and availability of appliances are being closely monitored and managed with dynamic solutions to draw on our resources across Scotland to maintain resilience.”

The crisis facing both the ambulance and fire services is indicative of the huge pressure being felt by the health service across Scotland, with sharp increases in staff absences and warnings of services coming under strain.

While First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement the self-isolation period is being reduced from ten to seven days is expected to ease the pressure on public services facing a staffing crisis, the situation remains acute across the nation’s health boards.

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NHS Fife said its latest figures showed just under 270 of its staff were absent due to contracting Covid-19 or having to self-isolate, with services across the region still under “significant strain”. That figure marks a notable increase compared to mid-December, when Covid-related absences stood at 223.

The board, which has already retracted non-urgent services to protect emergency and cancer care, said there had been a “sharp increase” in the number of people requiring hospital treatment for Covid, particularly amongst those who are not fully vaccinated.

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Dr Christopher McKenna, its medical director, said: “Our hospitals are currently extremely busy. Not only are our wards very busy, our A&E is very busy, as are the admission areas and our community hospitals.

“Patients are coming into hospital who are extremely unwell with Covid, and many of these patients haven't been fully vaccinated. Some of these patients are young adults and some of these patients are also pregnant.”

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has the most absences by far of any of the country’s health boards. There are 1,158 staff off due to Covid-19 related reasons, up from 1,066 in the last week of December.

A spokesman for the board said: “We continue to prioritise emergency, trauma and cancer care alongside the increasing Covid admissions. We recognise the increased pressure on both staff and services and are working to ensure support and mitigation as much as possible.

“At all times, the safety and care of our patients is our absolute priority. To help deal with current pressures, we have frequent safety huddles throughout the day, which prioritise the need for staff to be moved to support high priority services.”

Around 4 per cent of NHS Lanarkshire’s workforce – about 480 staff – are absent due to Covid-related reasons, although the figure is expected to be even higher once data on staff shortages among medical and dental workers is updated.

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Judith Park, the board’s director of acute services, said: "We continue to face staffing challenges across health services. We are deploying staff from other areas to ensure our services can deliver effective patient care.

"We usually reduce elective activity over the festive period and early January as part of our winter plans and we have taken down some elective lists in some specialties due to staff absences in those teams.”

Absences are also rising at NHS Forth Valley. The number stood at 200 as recently as the weekend, but as of Wednesday afternoon, more than 230 staff were off work for Covid-19 related reasons.

In a statement, the board said: “We are doing everything possible to maintain adequate staffing levels and this is being closely monitored to ensure we support the service areas most affected.”

In Ayrshire and Arran, the health board has 188 staff self-isolating at home as a result of testing positive for Covid-19.

Dr Crawford McGuffie, its medical director, said there were “significant pressures” across its services in acute, primary and community care, adding: “This is an extremely challenging time for many of our staff.”

NHS Lothian said it was unable to provide figures, but Jacquie Campbell, chief officer for acute services at the health board, said staff absences were having a “marked impact”.

NHS Borders said its absent rate as of Tuesday was 6.7 per cent, 2.96 per cent of which was Covid-related. In Tayside, the board said its current Covid-19 absence rate was 4.9 per cent, with hospital services “coping with current demand.”

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NHS Highland said around 1 per cent of its workforce were absent due to Covid.

NHS 24 said some 279 staff were currently off due to Covid, but stressed that it always increases its staffing during the festive period.

The service added that over the four-day Hogmanay holiday weekend, its 111 service experienced a call demand of nearly 49,000. On Monday, there were just over 15,000 calls, making it one of the service’s busiest ever days.

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