‘Covid bystanders’ slowing down urgent surgeries a ‘major problem’ for the NHS

“Covid bystanders” are becoming a “major problem” for the NHS, as people who come to hospital for non-Covid reasons but subsequently test positive are slowing down urgent surgeries, a consultant has warned.

Dr Zudin Puthucheary, the chairman of the Intensive Care Society’s national rehabilitation collaborative, said that people who unknowingly have the virus when they arrive at hospital could increase transmission in so-called “green” and “clean” areas and impact how emergency departments deal with patients.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “This is a major problem. We call it, anecdotally, Covid bystander problems, where [patients] come in with, say, a big car crash, when people drink and drive over Christmas, and they happen to be Covid positive but no one knows this until they have the Covid test and it comes back.

“So this is a big problem because, of course, this is one of the things that slows down a lot of work in hospital. It slows down a lot of the urgent surgery that’s happening.

“We’ve seen a lot of this in the last two waves, when our so-called green and clean areas were rapidly infected with patients with Covid who brought it in but didn’t manifest anything.”

He added: “There’s a worry not only about how much is in the community, but how transmissible this is. It’s far more transmissible than any other variant we’ve had so far. So the fact we’re seeing milder disease isn’t necessarily a good thing from the NHS’s point of view.”

A quarter of patients do not have primary Covid diagnosis

Dr Puthucheary said that medics in intensive care are “watching with bated breath” to see the impact of the omicron variant on admissions, which will not be properly felt until mid-January.

He added: “We don’t see the peak or admissions to hospital for another 10 to 14 days, beginning of January, so many of us feel it’s far too early to be optimistic.”

When asked whether intensive care patients infected with omicron are facing easier treatment, compared to patients infected with previous variants, Dr Puthucheary said medics are better prepared to treat patients because of scientific advancements.

However, he said that medics remain worried about the rehabilitation of patients who suffer with long Covid.

“We know a vast amount more about how to treat these patients, and we know a lot more about how not to treat these patients. Science has really moved on… so we know what to do,” he added.

“The problem is, we’ve really been focused on getting people to survive Covid if they come to intensive care, but that survival comes with a cost. And we still haven’t moved on to looking at how to rehabilitate people.”

He added that although it is too early to speculate the number of people being infected with omicron after arriving in hospital, it “could be the case” that patients who did not have Covid when admitted are testing positive from on-site transmission.

Government analysis has shown that the omicron variant is up to 70 per cent less likely to cause hospitalisations, but is better at evading booster jabs.

The UK Health Security Agency also found that people infected with the new variant were 45 per cent less likely to turn up to A&E.

Dr Jenny Harries, the agency’s chief executive, said: “Our latest analysis shows an encouraging early signal that people who contract the omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalisation than those who contract other variants.

“However, it should be noted both that this is early data and more research is required to confirm these findings. Cases are currently very high in the UK, and even a relatively low proportion requiring hospitalisation could result in a significant number of people becoming seriously ill.

“The best way that you can protect yourself is to come forward for your first two doses of vaccine, or your booster jab and do everything you can to stop onward transmission of the infection.”

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