The climax is yet to come, Europe’s healthcare system groaning from the rapid spread of Omicron

  • UK strikes private sector deals as pressure builds on NHS
  • Spain is considering relaxing the COVID tracking system to limit absences
  • Infection rates among European health workers are increasing

MADRID / LONDON, January 10 (Reuters) – Europe’s health systems are again burdened by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus during the holiday season, the infection is still pending.

Despite early studies showing a lower risk of serious illness or hospitalization from Omicron compared to the previously prevalent Delta variant, health networks in Spain, the UK, Italy and beyond are in increasingly desperate circumstances.

The UK put its largest private healthcare companies on high alert on Monday to provide critical treatments, including cancer surgery, should unsustainable hospital admissions or staff absences overwhelm the National Health Service (NHS) hospitals in England. Continue reading

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The country also began sending military personnel to assist hospitals on Friday as COVID-19 cases were recorded. Continue reading

“Omicron means more patients and fewer staff need to be treated,” NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis said in a statement.

In the United States, hospitals are postponing elective operations to release staff and beds, while Spain’s primary health network is so tight that authorities in the northeastern region of Aragon approved the reintegration of retired health workers and nurses on the penultimate day of 2021. Continue reading

“The exponential increase in the number of cases means that primary care cannot adequately fulfill its contact tracing and vaccination campaign tasks or its normal activities,” the authorities said in a statement.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Monday it might be time to use various parameters to track the pandemic and confirmed a report by El Pais newspaper. Continue reading

El Pais said the government is considering methods similar to tracking the flu without such widespread testing and case records.


Frontline workers like nurses and physical therapists are hardest hit, the Spanish nursing union SATSE said in a statement, noting that in Andalusia they made up more than 30% of workers on COVID-related vacation in the second half of December.

In the sunny southern region, around 1,000 workers infected with the coronavirus were registered in the final weeks of the year, causing “serious problems with service coverage,” the statement said.

In the Netherlands, infection rates are also rising sharply among hospital staff, especially nurses and nursing assistants, the Dutch daily De Telegraaf reported on Friday after a survey in eight large hospitals.

In the worst case, one in four tested positive in the run-up to Christmas, like at the Amsterdam University Hospital, where 25% of employees are now testing positive, compared with 5% a week ago.

Dutch hospitals are considering changing their quarantine rules to allow infected staff to come to work without symptoms, De Telegraaf said, as Dutch daily case numbers have been breaking records since December 19, despite a strict lockdown.

In Italy, the problem of infected health workers – more than 12,800 according to data from last week – is exacerbated by the suspension of doctors, nurses and administrative staff who are not vaccinated and make up just over 4% of the total workforce.


In a final effort to fill gaps in service, Italian health officials are freezing or postponing vacation days for employees, and freezing or postponing scheduled surgeries that are not classified as “urgent”.

Hospital admissions in the UK have been at their highest since last February, and the NHS is expected to face even more pressure as COVID-19 spikes in the elderly. Continue reading

“We are still seeing increasing hospital admissions, especially as the case rate rises in older age groups. This is cause for concern, ”said British Health Minister Sajid Javid on Friday. “If we look at the NHS, we have some rocky weeks ahead of us.”

For the week leading up to January 2 – the most recent period for which data is available – around 80,000 health workers were absent from work each day – a 13% increase from the previous week, according to NHS England. Almost half of those absences, or 44%, were due to COVID-19, an increase of more than a fifth from the previous week.

Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of the Bilbao Institute of Health and Strategy and a former senior WHO official, said Spain had failed to take adequate measures to strengthen vital services and pressures would continue to increase.

“Spain has several weeks – basically all of January – with rising cases … then hopefully we’ll reach a plateau that is falling just as quickly,” he told Reuters.

He thinks it’s unlikely that a more infectious variant will emerge, which is also deadlier than Omicron, and is optimistic that the current wave could signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“Pandemics don’t end with a huge boom, but with small waves because so many have been infected or vaccinated … According to Omicron, we shouldn’t have to worry about anything more than small waves.”

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Reporting by Clara-Laeila Laudette, Nathan Allen and Inti Landauro in Madrid, Alistair Smout in London, Emilio Parodi in Milan; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in Amsterdam; Letter from Clara-Laeila Laudette; Editing by Kirsten Donovan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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