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Anyone looking for a bit of Christmas cheer from the chief medical officer at Wednesday’s Downing Street briefing was probably disappointed.

Chris Whitty’s message was stark – the coming omicron storm will have a massive impact on the NHS, not just from the number of people who will become ill and may need its care, but on its ability to provide that care when its own staff will be vulnerable to covid as well.

“Very large numbers of people in society, and that includes doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, are going to get covid at the same time because it is a very sharp peak,” he said. “There will be a significant problem [of] people actually providing staff to man and generally be able to look after any part of the health and social care system.”

He went on to tell the health select committee on Thursday morning that there may be more admissions from omicron than at any point in the pandemic so far – although he also stressed that there is still much to learn about the variant, especially around vaccine effectiveness.

HSJ readers who are beginning to worry about their own Christmas plans are in good company – Professor Whitty admitted he expects his family Christmas to be interrupted by the demands of the pandemic. But the question for many will be how long this peak will go on for – and will they have the staff to cope with it?

Ends vs means

Yet again the NHS is being told to boost international recruitment in the face of staffing shortages this winter.

Deputy chief nurse for England Duncan Burton told NHS leaders to see international recruitment as a “big opportunity” over the next few weeks and months and urged them to bring forward the travel of any recruits from abroad waiting to arrive in the UK.

On the face of it the number of overseas nurses joining the Nursing and Midwifery Council register sounds particularly high this month, with 800 joining in just one week and another 900 expected before the end of the month (the monthly average of joiners was around 1,500 so far).

The NHS has had no choice but to turn internationally to battle ongoing nursing shortages and it will undoubtedly make up a large proportion of the ‘50,000 more nurses’ target.

But there are of course questions over the ethics of bringing nurses over from abroad during a pandemic and the ongoing question of sustainability. Perhaps ongoing workforce modelling will force the NHS – and indeed the government – to question which workforce recruitment levers it relies on in the future.