More tests and checks delivered by NHS despite Omicron winter

NHS national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.

New figures show NHS staff delivered 120,000 more diagnostic tests and checks in December, as the Omicron variant struck, compared to the same month last year, new figures show today.

While NHS staff pulled out all the stops to accelerate the lifesaving COVID-19 booster programme, delivering over 14 million vaccinations in December, an extra 107,000 people also started consultant-led treatment compared to the same period last year.

The NHS also saw the highest number of staff absences for any winter on record over December and January with almost 5.8 million staff sick days – more than a third (38%) of these due to COVID.

Despite the new variant, hardworking staff continued to prioritise cancer care with latest data showing almost 27,000 people started treatment for cancer in December

Annual figures also show that the number of people getting checked for cancer increased by over half a million (512,110) in one year between December 2020 and December 2021.

The NHS’ Elective Recovery Plan, published this week, set out a blueprint to address backlogs built up during the pandemic and will increase capacity to deliver around 17 million tests performed over a three year period.

The NHS aims to roll out more than 160 diagnostic centres, with 66 set to be in use across England by the end of March – 26 more than previously planned.

The blueprint also aims to eliminate waits of longer than a year for planned care by March 2025 and deliver around 30% more elective activity by 2024/25 than before the pandemic, after accounting for the impact of an improved care offer.

Monthly data published today also shows that in January, NHS staff dealt with the highest number of life-threatening ambulance call outs and the highest levels of 111 calls for that month since records began.

NHS national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis said: 

“While seasonal pressures are ongoing, we are now beginning to see the full picture of the Omicron winter on the NHS, and despite sky-high staff absences, hardworking NHS staff continued to make inroads on the backlog that has inevitably built up and delivered 120,000 more tests and checks in December compared to the same time last year.

“Hardworking staff also responded to the government’s call to protect the nation from the new Omicron variant, delivering over 13 million lifesaving booster jabs in December alone – providing lifesaving protection to millions of people at speed.

“While pressures remain for our staff with the highest number of life-threatening ambulance call outs and 111 calls for the month of January, NHS staff are committed to bringing down the backlog and the clear plan published this week will help increase the number of checks, tests and treatment provided for patients.

“As ever, if you have a health problem, please come forward for care – the NHS is here for you”.

Separate analysis shows that even though the NHS in England admitted 302,000 patients with COVID in 2021 – up from 242,000 in 2020 – staff delivered four million more diagnostic tests and 2.1m more people left the waiting list for procedures like hip and knee replacements in 2021 compared to 2020.

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