“In many places they’re already under immense stress and pressure, and so they are starting to go off sick themselves with COVID, but also mental and physical exhaustion,” Patricia Marquis, England director for the Royal College of Nursing union told the BBC. “So, staff are looking forward now thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what is coming?’”

Britain’s main nurses’ union warned Monday that exhaustion and surging coronavirus cases among medical staff are pushing them to the breaking point, adding to pressure on the government for new restrictions to curb record numbers of infections driven by the omicron variant.

The warning throws into stark relief the unpalatable choice Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces: wreck holiday plans for millions for a second year running, or face a potential tidal wave of cases and disruption.

Even if it is milder, the new variant could still overwhelm health systems because of the sheer number of infections. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.K. have surged by 50% in a week as omicron overtook delta as the dominant variant.

Patricia Marquis, England director for the Royal College of Nursing union, said the situation over the next few weeks looks “very bleak,” as growing absences from sickness and self-isolation hit hospitals already struggling to clear a backlog of postponed procedures and treat normal winter sicknesses alongside coronavirus cases.

“In many places they’re already under immense stress and pressure, and so they are starting to go off sick themselves with COVID, but also mental and physical exhaustion,” she told the BBC. “So, staff are looking forward now thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what is coming?’”

Many governments in Europe and the U.S. are confronting similar dilemmas over how hard to come down in the face of omicron, which appears more transmissible than the previous delta variant that itself led to surges in many parts of the world. Early evidence suggests omicron may also produce less serious illness — though scientists caution it is too soon to say — and that it could better evade vaccine protection.

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