GWENT'S health board has urged people to only visit hospitals "if absolutely necessary", as figures show a significant portion of NHS staff in Wales are absent because of coronavirus.

The Royal College of Nursing has warned that nurses in Wales are "exhausted, stressed, undervalued and demoralised" and need reinforcements.

The latest figures, published today, show that the rates of absence due to isolation or to Covid-19 sickness remain at their highest rates for months – a trend that began earlier this month.

The Omicron variant of the virus has been blamed for the rise in cases across Wales and the UK. Although research shows the strain is less likely than others to cause severe illness, it spreads much more rapidly and has led to record daily infection rates in recent weeks, affecting all sectors of society – including healthcare.

Currently, one in 37 NHS employees is off work because of coronavirus, either because they are ill with the virus or because they have been told to self-isolate.

Absence rates since the new year have hit highs not seen since the last major wave of Covid infections last winter, when the country was locked down.

It isn't just Covid that is affecting the NHS absence rate, however. Around one in 21 health service staff is currently off work due to other types of sickness – but this rate has stayed more or less the same throughout the pandemic.


'Exceptionally high demand' on NHS

In Gwent, the current high levels of NHS absence, combined with "exceptionally high demand" for services, have forced Aneurin Bevan University Health Board to postpone some elective surgery, although all clinically urgent procedures have continued as normal.

“It is inevitable that if our hospitals continue to see high numbers of Covid-19 patients, there will be more disruption to our services and we are reviewing this situation on a daily basis," a spokesperson for the health board told the Argus.

The health board urged Gwent residents to follow the basic rules and guidelines on stopping the spread of the virus, in a bid to keep as many people out of hospital as possible.

This includes minimising contact with other people, and taking lateral flow tests before socialising, as well as keeping a two metre distance from others, wearing a mask, and taking up the offer of a Covid-19 vaccination.

“We are continuing to ask the public to only consider visiting our hospitals if absolutely necessary. We would advise those that are not seriously ill to consider the other options available to them, such as their local pharmacist, GP surgery, or contacting NHS 111 for help and advice," the health board said. “We would like to thank our staff for their hard work in such testing circumstances, and our patients for their understanding, co-operation and support at this time.”

Nurses 'exhausted and stressed'

The Argus contacted the Royal College of Nursing to find out how serious the current staffing shortages were.

In response, Helen Whyley, the director of the RCN in Wales, said coronavirus had "compounded the already existing significant vacancies in the registered nursing workforce, with at 1719 vacancies in the NHS alone".

She added: "Nursing staff are telling the RCN that they are exhausted, stressed, undervalued and demoralised. The evidence is quite clear that safe and effective care can only be delivered if we have the right numbers and the right skill mix of nurses.

"Greater investment and support is need from the Welsh Government to ensure nurses are paid appropriately for the safety critical work they do and that their working environments support them to deliver high quality patient care.”

Welsh Government respond to calls for help

Responding to the RCN's comments, a Welsh Government spokesman told the Argus: "We are grateful for all the hard work our nurses have undertaken throughout the pandemic. We are committed to increasing the number of nurses in NHS Wales.

"We recently announced an extra 187 nurse training places for 2022-23. Over the past five years nurse training places have also increased by 55.2 per cent and midwives have increased by 96.8 per cent.

"The Health Education and Improvement Wales and Social Care Wales workforce strategy has also set out plans for a transformed and sustainable workforce for the future.”