The government could be significantly underestimating the number of medics going off work due to the coronavirus, according to a survey by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).
The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Sunday that only 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%.
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, said 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, however, said the RCP study “wasn’t an accurate representation” and said 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 said.
Neither the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) nor NHS England have been routinely publishing absence figures, unlike the Scottish government which issues daily updates. Last week, 9,719 Scottish staff, almost half of whom were nurses and midwives, were off work due to coronavirus.
Staffing levels are critical to the NHS’s ability to handle rising numbers of Covid-19 cases, which are expected to peak in the coming weeks, rising from the current confirmed level of nearly 42,000 cases across the UK.
The DHSC said 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 suggesting an increase since Thursday in the pressure on staffing levels.
This is based on data from acute trusts with a type 1 A&E, which submitted data of sufficient quality 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 the figures emerged from different sources, Hancock’s dismissal of the RCP’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 said. “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.”
The RCP 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 – 79% in London, 73% in the West Midlands and rising to 90% in Thames Valley. The RCP has told Hancock that the roll out 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.