2021: Covid-19 - the ongoing impact of the pandemic on patient and staff safety

  • 14th December 2021

This is the second of a short series of blogs in which we take a look back at our work in five areas of patient safety during 2021. In this blog, we look at our work to highlight key patient and staff safety issues resulting from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Through our work, Patient Safety Learning seeks to harness the knowledge, insights, enthusiasm and commitment of health and social care organisations, professionals and patients for system-wide change and the reduction of avoidable harm. We believe patient safety is not just another priority; it is a core purpose of health and social care. Patient safety should not be negotiable.

The Covid-19 pandemic has continued to present huge challenges in 2021, placing intense pressure on the delivery of healthcare with significant implications for both patient and staff safety. We highlighted a number of emerging challenges in 2020 and have continued to do so this year.

One key area of this has been the impact of the pandemic on non-Covid care and treatment.

We have shared the perspectives of frontline staff on emerging challenges around patient referrals and waiting lists on the hub. We have also highlighted the importance of giving patient safety a central role in meeting these challenges, including in tackling the increasing backlog in elective care. We have also shared innovative solutions that could both improve patient care and ease the pressure on the NHS on the hub, including new healthcare apps.

Turning to one of the direct impacts of ongoing Covid-19 infections, we have continued to raise awareness of the patient safety issues faced by people living with Long Covid.

In December this year, the Office for National Statistics estimated that around 1.2 million people in the UK were living with one or more symptoms of Long Covid.[1] There is a clear need for health services to better understand this condition and develop appropriate treatment and support. We have worked alongside Long Covid patient groups to support their calls for more funding for Long Covid research and services and for strengthened support and cross government coordination and leadership.

Considering the impact of the pandemic on the safety of staff, we have highlighted the issues of NHS staff being unable to access adequate PPE, putting them at increased risk of catching Covid-19.

While there is no centralised tracking of Covid-19 deaths among healthcare workers in the UK, a World Health Organization report in May 2021 estimated that the number of deaths among UK health and care workers is in the thousands.[2] Thousands more are now living with Long Covid and unable to work.

Alongside the moral obligation to protect frontline staff from the virus, Long Covid also has a direct impact on NHS capacity, further testing an already overstretched workforce. In September, our Chief executive Helen Hughes took part in a webinar about NHS staff access to PPE and we have published blogs about concerns around PPE and ventilation by frontline doctors Lindsay Fraser-Moodie and David Tomlinson. We collaborated with the Safer Healthcare and Biosafety Network in their Safety for All campaign, which emphasises that patient safety and staff safety are intrinsically linked - they are ‘two sides of the same coin’.

We have also been working with colleagues on an international level on these issues, recently participating in a webinar with leading patient safety figures such as Dr Abdulelah Alhawsawi and Professor Ted Baker to consider the importance of leadership for patient safety during Covid-19.

As we move into the new year and health services continue to feel the impact of the pandemic, we will continue to bring attention to the patient safety issues that it creates and exposes. We will also continue to work with patients and healthcare professionals to call for action to reduce avoidable harm related to Covid-19.


[1] Prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK: 2 December 2021. Office for National Statistics

[2] 'The impact of COVID-19 on health and care workers: a closer look at deaths'. World Health Organization, September 2021

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