The number of staff off because of Covid has rocketed by 66pc in a week at Norfolk’s hospitals.

As of last weekend (January 2), 504 staff at the James Paget, Queen Elizabeth and Norfolk & Norwich hospitals were off either with Covid or were self-isolating.

Another 800 were absent with other illnesses, bringing the total to 1,300, which is 8pc of the entire workforce.

The soaring sickness figures are leaving hospitals short-staffed just when they hit their busiest time.

In an effort to avert a staffing crisis, the government cut Covid isolation periods from 10 days to seven before Christmas, but it is under pressure to reduce that even further.

Alex Stewart, chief executive of patient group Healthwatch Norfolk, said: “Part of the issue is around the number of people who are self-isolating for long periods of time and, when the data shows it is safe, we would be keen for the current self-isolation period to be reduced further to free up more staff to look after us.”

Eastern Daily Press: Alex Stewart of Healthwatch NorfolkAlex Stewart of Healthwatch Norfolk (Image: Archant)

The worst-hit hospital for staff sickness is the James Paget in Gorleston where one in ten workers are currently off sick, half of them because of Covid. The number off with Covid has doubled in a week to 223.

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn is coping far better. It has just 1pc of staff off with Covid and an overall sickness rate of 7pc.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) also has a sickness rate of 7pc. It had 640 staff off, as of January 2, with 250 of them related to Covid.

The last time so many hospital staff were off ill was the start of February last year.

To cope with shortages hospitals have cancelled operations, redeployed staff and called on volunteers to help.

Managers at the NNUH have also squeezed more beds into rooms so staff can look after more patients.

A spokesperson for the NHS in Norfolk and Waveney said: "Staff continue to carry out regular Covid-19 testing to help reduce the risk of asymptomatic spread and are maintaining high standards of infection prevention and control as well as our local NHS having very high staff vaccination rates."

They encouraged everyone to help by getting vaccinated and wearing face masks.

Currently 90pc of all Norfolk’s 1,900 hospital beds are occupied; 131 of them are taken by Covid patients.

The entire health and care system in Norfolk and Waveney declared a critical incident on December 29 and dozens of retired carers have returned to their jobs in response to a 'call to arms' to stop the care system buckling under the pressures.