Staff absences at NHS hospitals in England due to sickness or self-isolation have risen for the first time since the start of the year, new figures show.
Three regions have also seen a week-on-week jump in staff absences specifically due to Covid-19.
It comes as the number of people in hospital with Covid has also started to increase – suggesting that the slow fall in coronavirus infections in England in recent weeks may have come to a halt.
An average of 55,832 staff at hospital trusts in England were absent each day last week, either because they were unwell or were self-isolating, up slightly from 55,433 in the previous week.
This is well below the levels reached at the peak of the Omicron wave of coronavirus, when absences averaged nearly 90,000.
But it is the first time the figure has increased week on week since the beginning of January.
There has also been a slight rise in London, from 1,469 to 1,472.
The figures, from NHS England, are an early indicator of a possible change in infection levels among the population.
The recent rise in the number of hospital patients in England with Covid – currently up 9% week on week – is another sign that prevalence of the virus might be growing.
Latest estimates of Covid infection levels in the UK will be published on Friday by the Office for National Statistics.
These are the most reliable measure of the prevalence of coronavirus, as they are based on a representative sample of tests collected regularly from tens of thousands of households, and can therefore estimate the percentage of people likely to test positive for Covid-19 at any one point in time – regardless of when they caught the virus, how many times they have had it and whether they have symptoms.
By contrast, the number of cases published each weekday by the Government is limited only to those people who have reported a positive test result, and is being increasingly affected by how many people are coming forward for tests or who are taking a test because they know they have coronavirus symptoms.
Separate figures published on Thursday by the UK Health Security Agency show the hospital admission rate in England for patients with Covid-19 stood at 11.3 per 100,000 people in the seven days to March 6, up from 9.8.
This is the first week-on-week rise since the start of the year.
Admissions rates have increased in all regions except north-west England, the West Midlands and Yorkshire/Humber.
The highest admission rate among age groups is for over-85s, at 118.8 per 100,000 people, up week-on-week from 88.8.