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Ministers must act now on NHS staffing crisis, health chiefs warn | Coronavirus

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Millions of patients will suffer worsening quality of care unless ministers take immediate action to alleviate the staffing crisis engulfing the NHS, health chiefs have warned.

The NHS Confederation, which represents the whole healthcare system, is tonight calling for a range of new measures to be implemented in the NHS in England to help overstretched hospitals and struggling ambulance, mental health, community, GP and social care services cope with “widespread” shortages of medics and health workers.

Tens of thousands of medical students should be deployed on to wards and other healthcare settings, NHS and social care staff must be granted priority access to lateral flow and PCR tests, and the self-isolation period should be reviewed to see if it can be slashed from 10 days to five, as has happened in the US and France, it said.

The call came as growing numbers of operations are being cancelled, with more than 20 NHS trusts declaring an “internal critical incident” in recent days as they struggle to cope with the intense Covid pressure. It emerged on Wednesday that at least four more NHS trusts have taken that step, the highest form of alert any hospital can issue, as had the entire NHS in Norfolk.

NHS staff absences have now spiralled to double what they normally would be at this time of year, and 17,276 people are in hospital in the UK with Covid – up 58% in a week – as Omicron continues to put “enormous strain” on every part of the health service, the NHS Confederation added.

The absence of tens of thousands of staff is already having a “detrimental” impact on the ability of the NHS to provide healthcare, it warned, and said that, without further measures, the staffing crisis “threatens the quality of patient care”.

Given the worsening situation, there should also be “explicit acknowledgment” from the national regulators that clinical tasks “might need to be allocated in ways which would not normally be recognised as best practice”, the NHS Confederation said.

Matthew Taylor, its chief executive, told the Guardian that in the last 24 hours hospital bosses had become “extremely concerned” about the widening ratio of staff to patients.

Boris Johnson insisted on Wednesday he was right not to take any further action.

The prime minister told MPs the cabinet had agreed to keep the existing plan B restrictions and ease travel testing rules. He also confirmed plans being implemented across the UK to end the requirement for confirmatory PCR tests for asymptomatic people who test positive using a lateral flow device (LFD).

An estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid in the week ending 31 December, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. In England one in 15 people in private households had Covid-19, according to ONS estimates. The level is one in 10 in London.

A further 194,747 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK as of 9am on Wednesday, while 334 more deaths were recorded – although this figure includes a backlog of hospital data from England since 1 January.

“It’s clear that we are facing a staffing crisis in the NHS, with a number of hospitals telling us they have around 10% of their staff in self-isolation or on sick leave for other reasons,” Taylor told the Guardian. “This is pushing up the ratio of staff to patients to levels hospitals are extremely concerned about.

“The prime minister’s attempts to reassure the public that the NHS is not being overwhelmed will not chime with the experience of staff working in some parts of the NHS. The government now needs to do all it can to mobilise more staff and other resources for the NHS to get through this extremely challenging period.”

While he welcomed Johnson’s announcement that 100,000 critical workers will get direct access to testing from next week, the move “does not go far enough”, Taylor said, and NHS, social care and other key workers should also have “priority access” to tests.

He said there was “merit” in reviewing the self-isolation period “to see if the evidence supports a halving of the period to five days”. “We also need other short-term measures, including deploying medical students on wards and taking other steps to cover rota gaps,” he added.

All of Greater Manchester’s 17 hospitals have postponed non-urgent surgery. Its healthcare system will not necessarily be able to “ride out” the wave of Omicron infections, the mayor, Andy Burnham, said, with the number of Covid patients in the region’s hospitals almost tripling in the past two weeks, from 346 people to 1,020.

Cara Charles-Banks, the chief executive of the Royal United Hospitals Bath trust, one of those to declare an internal critical incident, said it had done so on New Year’s Eve “due to ongoing pressures caused by both Covid and non-Covid patients, sickness among our staff and availability of beds.”

University Hospitals Dorset, which runs acute hospitals in Bournemouth and Poole, is preparing to cancel some routine operations after also declaring a critical incident. On Wednesday Poole hospital had only four free beds while Bournemouth had 25.

The same level of sickness absence prompted West Suffolk hospital to join the lengthening list of trusts declaring an incident. Both the acute trusts which provide care to people in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire also declared an internal critical incident over the bank holiday weekend.

The chief executive of one trust in the north of England said it has had to scale back non-urgent surgery after the number of Covid inpatients it is treating soared by 80% since Christmas Eve.

“We are doing priority one and priority two surgical cases, with others having to be cancelled,” the chief executive told the Guardian. Their trust is also redeploying staff because 10% of frontline personnel are off sick.

“The NHS runs hot all of the time so it doesn’t have the reserve for extraordinary events. Something has to give and, as in previous waves, it will be the care that can be delayed and it will be the goodwill and potentially the wellbeing of staff.”

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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