The number of NHS staff off work for Covid reasons appears to be falling, new figures show.
While there has been a 2% rise week on week between January 2 and 9, the daily data suggests that, after reaching a peak of 49,941 on January 5, the numbers have dropped every day since then.
Overall, 40,031 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England were absent for Covid-19 reasons on January 9, up 2% on the previous week (39,142).
At the start of December, just 12,508 staff were off with Covid or were self-isolating, according to figures from NHS England.
The new data shows regional differences, though most of the regions of England are seeing a drop in absent staff.
The largest percentage drop was in London, where 4,167 hospital staff were ill with coronavirus or having to self-isolate on January 9, down 13% on the previous week (4,765).
Meanwhile, Eastern England fell 10% week-on week from 3,320 on January 2 to 2,984 on January 9, the South East was also down 10% to 3,590, and the North East and Yorkshire fell by 8% to 8,125.
In South West England, there was a 1% drop to 2,974.
While staff absences due to Covid rose by 20% week-on-week in the Midlands from 7,931 on January 2 to 9,484 on January 9, there has been a drop each day from a peak of 10,690 on January 6.
There is a similar picture in the North West, up 19% week-on-week from 7,338 to 8,707 on January 9, but with numbers falling each day from a peak of 10,370 on January 5.
It comes as other data shows a total of 18,585 people in England were waiting more than two years to start routine hospital treatment at the end of November 2021.
This is up from 16,225 at the end of October and is around seven times the 2,608 people who were waiting longer than two years in April.
The number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment has also risen to a new record high with six million people waiting at the end of November.
However, the number of people admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England in November was 276,535 – up 24% from a year earlier (222,810), although this reflects lower-than-usual figures for November 2020, which were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The equivalent figure for November 2019, a non-pandemic year, was 301,928.
NHS England said the number of people waiting more than a year for NHS treatment fell by 1.8% in November compared with the previous month.
More than two million diagnostic tests were also performed in November – the second highest ever for November and highest in a single month since before the pandemic, it said.
NHS national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, said: “Omicron has increased the number of people in hospital with Covid at the same time as drastically reducing the number of staff who are able to work.
“Despite this, once again, NHS staff pulled out all the stops to keep services going for patients – there have been record numbers of life-threatening ambulance call-outs, we have vaccinated thousands of people each day and that is on top of delivering routine care and continuing to recover the backlog.
“But staff aren’t machines and with the number of Covid absences almost doubling over the last fortnight and frontline NHS colleagues determined to get back to providing even more routine treatments, it is vital that the public plays their part to help the NHS by getting your booster vaccine, if you haven’t already.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Our health service went into this wave of Covid infections with six million people on waiting lists for the first time ever.
“Thanks to a decade of Tory mismanagement, the NHS was unprepared for the pandemic and didn’t have any spare capacity when Omicron hit.
“It’s not just that the Conservatives didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining, they dismantled the roof and removed the floorboards.
“Now patients are paying the price, waiting months and even years for treatment, often in pain, distress and discomfort.”
The new data shows that a record 12,986 people had to wait more than 12 hours in A&E departments in England in December from a decision to admit to actually being admitted.
Meanwhile, just 73.3% of patients in England were seen within four hours at A&Es in December, the lowest percentage since records began.
Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said the latest data showed the “NHS being stretched to its limits in December” as Omicron hit.
“Waiting times in A&E departments increased to the longest on record, while nearly 13,000 patients spent over 12 hours on trolleys waiting for a hospital bed,” he said.
“The severe strain on the NHS has been compounded by thousands of hospital staff off sick or self-isolating due to Covid-19 … The urgent need for a fully-funded workforce plan is long overdue.”
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at the King’s Fund, said: “With the NHS now in the thick of one of the most uniquely challenging periods in its history, unacceptably long waits for hospital care are becoming increasingly commonplace.
“We must remember these are not just big numbers – they are people living with pain and anxiety while they wait for months and, in some cases, more than two years for treatment.”