NHS staff absences have slightly improved on last month, but are still putting immense pressure on exhausted and demoralised staff working under the extreme pressure of rising Covid-19 cases coupled with usual winter illnesses, according to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).

In a survey, the RCP found that two thirds of doctors (69%) have felt overwhelmed at least once while at work in the past three weeks. Some 27.5% of respondents said they had felt overwhelmed once or twice during this period, 21.5% once or twice a week. A fifth (20.5%) said they had felt overwhelmed almost every day.

It also found that 7.5% of respondents were off work (compared to 10.5% in December) and 3.5% due to Covid-19. With so many people off work, over half of doctors (55%) have been asked to fill a rota gap at short notice at least once during the past three weeks, adding yet further stress to their working days. Of those, almost a quarter (24%) had been asked to fill a rota gap at least once while on annual leave.

The RCP is now urging the government to commit to a funded long-term workforce plan, along with strategies to improve recruitment and retention.

Long way to go before we are through the current pressures

Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “We’re pleased to see that absence due to Covid-19 has fallen since December. But it’s clear that availability of workforce remains the limiting factor to both morale and the performance of the NHS.

“Staff are feeling as low as ever before. The conversations I have with colleagues every day, lead me to sense a real shift in how well people feel they are able to cope. We need to keep this in mind because while we may see some light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, we have a long way to go before we are through the current pressures and have even further to go to clear the backlog.”

He added that he was uncomfortable admitting he has also felt overwhelmed in recent weeks.

"I’ve not felt like this since I was a houseman being on-call every other night," he said. "These are extraordinary times and it is only through the support of colleagues and family that many of us are coping.

“We are all going to have to do all we can to make sure our multidisciplinary teams are working well, increase flexibility in working and training patterns, and make sure support is in place for colleagues who are struggling. But in the long run, as we and many others keep saying, we simply need to invest in more people.”