NHS workers in Grampian and the Highlands needed more Covid-related sick days at the start of the pandemic than they had previously for all illnesses combined.
During the first months working under coronavirus, absence rates for people who tested positive or needed to self-isolate soared above 6% in Grampian – and as high as 7.5% in Highland.
In 2019, the average rate for all Scottish NHS boards – before Covid had even emerged – was 5.3%.
But, as 2020 progressed, coronavirus-related absence rates plummeted with introduction of rapid testing largely credited for the change.
During the first year of the pandemic, workers in the Highlands and Grampian needed to take more than 200,000 sick days due to Covid.
For one health board, this totalled a spend of more than £1.1 million.
In March 2020, as the pandemic set in across the country, more than 1,000 NHS Grampian staff tested positive for the virus or had to self-isolate.
Their absences led to almost 40,000 hours of missed work.
That same month in the Highlands, almost 800 employees were off sick due to Covid – approximately 7.5% of its entire workforce.
And while the health board does not log hours lost like Grampian, it has revealed these absences amounted to almost 11,000 days.
After the first few months working amid the coronavirus crisis, health staff were given access to rapid tests.
In the Highlands, this prompted a huge drop in absences – from almost 800 in March 2020 to just 59 by May that year.
This figure continued to decrease, most recently with just two staff affected in January and three in February.
There was also a drop in Grampian with absence rates falling to a low of 142 in July 2020.
They have since remained relatively consistent, between 220-280, but with a three-month rise to the mid-500s during the second wave of the virus at the start of winter.
Altogether NHS Grampian said 5,992 employees had to take time off work between March 2020 and February 2021 due to coronavirus.
This included more than 1,000 who tested personally, with the rest absent for self-isolation.
It has been calculated just under 191,000 working days were lost during this time.
In the Highlands, a total of 1,219 staff required sick days for Covid-related reasons – missing out on 14,265 days of work.
The health board said this cost more than £1.1m.
NHS’s ‘enormous effort’ during Covid
A spokeswoman for NHS Highland said the body has worked “tirelessly” to support colleagues who have been unwell or self-isolating due to the coronavirus.
She added: “While there was a substantial impact in March and April 2020, absence then significantly reduced due to the availability of rapid PCR testing, which wasn’t available earlier on in the pandemic.
“NHS Highland employs 10,500 colleagues and this data shows that, at the peak absence time in March 2020, 7.5% of colleagues had an absence in that month due to Covid-19.
“This reduced to 2.5% in April 2020 and, by October, was 0.003%.
“This is also in the context that the board saw other sickness absence drop over the same period, as many of those with usual seasonal cold or flu illness had to self-isolate unless Covid-19 could be ruled out.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Grampian said: “As an employer, NHS Grampian has not been immune from the financial impact of Covid-19.
“Whether people have been unwell, or required to self-isolate, we have continued normal payments in line with NHS Scotland guidance.
“This ensures staff only attend work when they are fit and safe to do so.
“Everyone working for NHS Grampian has put in an enormous effort to deal with the impact of the pandemic and continue to offer healthcare services to people in the region.”