Some U.K. Hospitals Asking Recently Retired Staff to Come Back to Work Amid Omicron Surge

As the COVID-19 variant Omicron continues to spread throughout the world, hospitals across the United Kingdom are urging staff members who recently retired to return to work.

National Health Service (NHS) Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said many hospitals are struggling with staff shortages as Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubles down on his hesitancy to enforce new restrictions.

"Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate," Taylor said. "Any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing."

The U.K. has begun easing COVID-19 testing requirements in England in an effort to reduce the number of people being admitted to hospitals with the virus. Starting on January 11, those who test positive for COVID-19 using a rapid lateral test will not have to confirm their findings with a PCR test if they are asymptomatic. If they do exhibit symptoms, a PCR test is encouraged. Other regions of the U.K. are not affected by the easing.

"While cases of COVID continue to rise," U.K. Health Security Agency chief executive Jenny Harries said, "this tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs can be used confidently to indicate COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation."

Nurses Wanted
As the COVID-19 variant Omicron continues to spread throughout the world, hospitals across the United Kingdom are urging staff members who recently retired to return to work. Above, a pedestrian walks past a job advertisement for Nurses, ODP's and Healthcare Assistants, opposite St James's University Hospital in Leeds, northern England, on January 5, 2022, where a temporary "Nightingale" COVID-19 surge hub is to be set up. Photo by Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

John Edmunds, professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the move made sense.

"When the prevalence is high—and it is incredibly high at the moment—almost everyone who tests positive with a lateral flow test will be a true positive. There is really no need to confirm this with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere," he said.

But he cautioned that the change will mean authorities have less data about the spread of different variants as PCR swabs are used for genotyping and sequencing to identify different mutations. He said the change also will mean that daily updates on confirmed cases—which also come from PCR tests—"may need more careful interpretation."

Confirmed new daily infections across the U.K. jumped to a record 218,274 on Tuesday, 15 percent more than the previous high set on December 31. However, inconsistent reporting during the holiday period may have inflated the daily figures.

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, tested positive and will miss the chance to grill Johnson in Parliament on Wednesday about the government's COVID-19 policies.

A string of NHS local organizations have declared "critical incidents" in recent days amid staff shortages. Hospitals in the Greater Manchester region said they would pause some non-urgent surgeries amid the rising impact of COVID-19 and worker absences.

Gillian Keegan, a junior minister at the U.K. Ministry of Health, acknowledged the strain in an interview with the BBC.

"Right now, they are under extreme pressure with the Omicron variant, with the number of positive cases and the increase in hospitalizations, and at this point in [winter] time when they always have extreme pressure," Keegan said.

There have also been cuts to train services and garbage is piling up in some city streets due to shortages of staff to collect it.

An ambulance service in northeast England began advising patients with non-life-threatening conditions over the New Year's weekend to ask a relative drive them to a hospital as waiting times for ambulances rose due to staff shortages and extra demand.

"It is still taking us too long to get an ambulance to patients. Unfortunately, due to this, patients remain at risk, which is unacceptable," North East Ambulance Service medical director Mathew Beattie said on Wednesday.

He stressed, however, that "we would never ask anyone to drive themselves to hospital with a life-threatening illness."

Opposition politicians and some public health experts have pressed the government to tighten restrictions on business and personal interactions as Omicron sweeps across the country. Johnson has resisted their calls after almost 100 of his party's lawmakers opposed mask requirements and other infection-control measures imposed last month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

England Ambulances
The U.K. has begun easing COVID-19 testing requirements in England in an effort to reduce the number of people being admitted to hospitals with the virus. Above, paramedics wearing face coverings and PPE wheel a patient on a trolley past ambulances parked outside Leeds General Infirmary hospital in Leeds, northern England, on January 5, 2022. Photo by Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images