A hospital trust has said it has not needed to declare a critical incident "yet" but warned it is dealing with staff shortages and an increase in Covid patients.

Following the rapid spread of Omicron, some NHS trusts in England are on "high alert" due to rising hospitalisations and because so many staff are self-isolating.

When a critical incident is declared at a hospital, it means there are fears priority services cannot be safely delivered.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs Watford General Hospital along with sites in St Albans and Hemel Hempstead, has confirmed it is not currently in a position where it needs to move to the highest alert level.

But it indicated in a statement today (January 6) that the situation at the trust is pressurised with planned surgery put on hold and visitors banned.

A spokesperson said: "We’ve seen an increase in Covid patients over the past week and are also experiencing higher levels of staff absences than usual. Unfortunately, a small number of planned surgeries were stood down and we have already re-booked most of these.

"However, we are working hard to minimise disruption and we have not yet declared a critical incident. We strongly encourage everyone to protect themselves by having their booster vaccinations."

Related: Watford General Hospital suspends visitors due to rising Covid cases

Watford Observer:

Just how many Covid patients are currently being cared for is not publicly available at the moment.

The latest healthcare data shows there were 56 Covid patients being cared for on December 28 including six on ventilation.

The figure of 56 is far below the peak of 349 in spring 2020 - when the trust did declare a critical incident due to pressure on Watford General's oxygen system.

This time round, it is not necessarily the number of patients in hospital but the number off sick that is making things harder.

NHS England data showed there were 294 members off sick on Boxing Day, of which half were for Covid-related reasons.

Infection rates remain incredibly high in Watford and the surrounding areas with at least 2,800 Watford residents testing positive for Covid-19 between December 20 and January 5. There were around 3,500 cases over the same period in Three Rivers and around 47,000 across Hertfordshire over the 17 day period.

Comparatively, in the final 17 days of November, there were around 15,000 cases recorded across the county.

Infection rates are very high in all age groups in Hertfordshire between 10 and 60 and although lower in the most elderly population, rates have risen in the latter to around or approaching 1,000 cases per 100,000 population.

Although it has been recognised Omicron does not cause as severe disease as Delta or other previous variants, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said record Covid case figures showed those who believed the pandemic to be over were "profoundly wrong".

And due to the sheer number of people catching Omicron, Covid patients in England's hospitals more than doubled in a week over the New Year period to over 15,000.

Hertfordshire's public health director says the county became a hotspot after the new variant spread from London.

Jim McManus added: "The vaccines do still seem to be working to prevent people needing intensive care and mechanical ventilation treatment, but the Omicron variant is still very serious for some people, even if mild for other.

"With such a high number of cases, it’s more important than ever that people get their vaccinations and booster jabs as soon as possible to help us minimise the impact of this wave of cases."

Watford Observer: Jim McManus, director of public health in HertfordshireJim McManus, director of public health in Hertfordshire

Mr McManus added: "We’re working closely with schools and businesses to help them follow the latest government guidelines, but we can all help look after each other by getting a PCR test if you have symptoms, self-isolating when asked, wearing a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces and remembering to ventilate rooms."

In Watford, around a quarter of people aged over 12 are unvaccinated while two-thirds of those aged over 18 are boosted.

Watford mayor Peter Taylor said: "We know that being vaccinated is one of the best ways to reduce transmission, which is why we are continuing to encourage uptake in Watford. Reducing the spread is so important to protecting our health services."