By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter
Care home services across Nottinghamshire are under threat because of the risk to staffing posed by the emergence of the new Omicron variant, the county’s top health director has warned.
Melanie Brooks, Nottinghamshire County Council’s service director for adult social care and public health, says she is worried about increasing numbers of care home staff having to isolate during a “challenging” winter period.
The Omicron variant is now spreading through the UK’s population and has already caused stricter Covid regulations to be brought in by Whitehall.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned on Wednesday the variant is “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic”, with cases doubling at a rapid rate.
It is unclear at this stage whether the higher rates of infection will translate into rising hospitalisations, with definitive evidence yet to come out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected.
But the emergence of the strain has led to concern for Nottinghamshire’s adult social care sector, which was hit hard during the early waves of the pandemic.
Ms Brooks, who runs the adult social care and public health department at the council, says she has growing concerns over Omicron’s ability to transmit between people.
She warned high infection rates among care home staff could have “quite a big impact”, with the numbers of people falling ill likely to put a strain on services.
Ms Brooks told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “With the Delta variant, we already had quite high cases of people becoming unwell.
“But my worry on top of people becoming hospitalised and unwell is staff becoming ill, and we’re already at that point where we’re becoming worried about being able to provide that support.
“Lots of people being ill and having to isolate really puts our services under strain.
“Small numbers [of absent staff] have quite a big impact when you’re managing such a challenging situation.”
Ms Brooks says she’s particularly concerned about the wider effects of the Covid variant and what impact it could have on people with vulnerabilities to infection.
She says between 7,000 and 10,000 people in the county are at significantly higher risk from the disease and urged people to get their booster jab.
However, she worries whether the ongoing booster drive will be in time to prevent staff absences this winter.
Her comments come at a time when the department is battling mass staff shortages, with the nationwide social care sector struggling to fill vacancies.
Ms Brooks puts it down, in part, to a “perfect storm” of vacancies in other industries and many staff in the sector going through a “tough time working relentlessly through the pandemic”.
Speaking in an adult social care committee meeting earlier this week, Kashif Ahmed, service director for integrated strategic commissioning and service improvement, said work is ongoing to tackle the shortage, including building partnerships with universities.
But he said there is no “silver bullet” to solving the issue in the short term, with the council struggling to fill even a third of the 111 vacancies created this year.
He said: “It’s challenging across the board, in particular around qualified staff, social workers, occupational therapists and community care officers.
“It’s going to require a long-term, strategic plan and we are looking at apprenticeships and having more conversations and partnerships with universities.
“The reality is we need a much greater increase of people coming through the pipeline because demand currently is high.”