THE post-Christmas surge of coronavirus patients is enough to fill 18 hospitals, as top doctors describe working in a “warzone”.
The NHS is on course to collapse “within three weeks” – leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose a third national lockdown last night to prevent devastation.
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In his address to the nation, Mr Johnson said: “Our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
“In England alone, the number of Covid patients has increased by nearly a third in the last week to almost 27,000.
“That number is 40 per cent higher than the first peak in April.”
There are now a record 26,626 virus patients in England’s hospitals, 30 per cent higher than one week before.
It’s double a month ago when there were 12,987 on December 4.
And the figure is 33 per cent higher than the spring peak of 18,974 on April 12, when Britain was considered to be battling the most severe point of the pandemic when some 900 people were dying per day.
The latest data also shows that 3,145 patients were admitted to hospitals in England on Saturday, the highest on record.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said patients were being admitted to hospital at an “alarming rate”.
He said: “There are almost 9,000 more Covid patients in hospital beds – the equivalent of nearly 18 hospitals – than there was on Christmas Day, just 10 days ago. We know that number is going to continue to rise over the next few weeks.”
He added the announcement of a lockdown was the “only option to save lives”, as well as ensuring the NHS can still provide patients with care.
“As the prime minister indicated, the roll out of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine does mean there is an end in sight and the NHS is working tirelessly to deliver the largest ever vaccination programme in history.
“But, for now, the NHS needs the public to play its part and stay at home.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the British Medical Association council chair, said hospitals were “like a warzone”.
It’s absolutely harrowing, it’s breaking us
He said: “Hospitals are stretched to breaking point, with doctors reporting unbearable workloads as they take on more Covid-19 admissions alongside the growing backlog of people who need other, non-Covid care.
“Doctors are desperate, with some even comparing their working environment to a warzone as wards overflow, waiting lists grow, and ambulances queue outside hospitals because there are now so many people with Covid-19.
“As a result, the NHS is currently facing a perfect storm of immense workload and staff burnout and more cases expected as we see the impact of Christmas on infection rates.”
Dr Nagpaul said the NHS “is on the brink” and facing “exponential demand for care beyond what can be supplied in many places”.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the ability to care for patients within the NHS was being “weakened and compromised”.
He said: “There was no option other than to take these drastic steps.”
Mr Morimer told the Daily Mail staff are being spread “more thinly” and three nurses would be looking after a ward of patients that normally require five or six.
“There is probably not a critical care unit in the country that has a one-to-one ICU nurse to patient ratio”, he said, referring to guidance that each patient should have their own nurse to care for them.
The guidelines are relaxed when an ICU breaches capacity and is forced to use additional beds.
Dave Carr, an ICU nurse in London, added: “It’s absolutely harrowing, it’s breaking us.”
Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, also warned the situation was worse than any he had faced and called for a three-month lockdown.
The situation in NHS hospitals forced the UK’s chief medical officers to raise the Covid-19 alert level to five for the first time ever.
What does the mutant variation mean for cases?
Data from John Hopkins University shows the sudden surge in cases over the past month caused by the new variant.
After the November lockdown to suppress the second wave, cases lulled for a brief period of time to around 200 cases per million people.
Then they began rising sharply in early December, doubling to 400 cases per million people within two weeks.
A month later and recorded cases are over 800 per million people – or 80 per 100,000 – and show no signs of slowing down.
The latest R number is estimated at 1.1 to 1.3. Anything over 1 means the outbreak is growing, rather than shrinking.
That’s despite the fact three quarters of people living in England are now in Tier 4.
Hospital admissions have also soared above the the darkest days of the first wave in April.
In England, there are currently 23,823 patients being treated for Covid in hospital, according to the latest data up to December 28, compared to 18,974 on April 12.
The latest data shows a 33 per cent rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus patients in hospital in England between Christmas Day and January 2
Level five, the highest, means “there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.
It indicates a risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed within three weeks without urgent action – it does not mean the NHS will be overwhelmed.
The chief medical officers and Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said: “Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure.
“We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
Alert five means “transmission is high or rising exponentially”, as the Government yesterday announced a further 58,784 cases – the seventh day in a row cases have been over the 50,000 mark.
The national case rate is now 518 new cases per 100,000 people – three times the level at the start of the month.
Because cases are still on the rise, hospital admissions and deaths will continue to increase with a slight lag behind.
Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said last week: “We know Covid-19 cases are rising sharply, with the new variant making a big impact, so more demand for treatment is ‘baked in’.
“We are in for a very difficult new year.”
The aggressive new variant of Covid is behind the surge in cases, having become the more “dominant” strain circulating.
Ministers were not alerted of the new strain until December 11, which first emerged in September and rapidly spread in the South East and London, with the ability to increase rapidly in numbers even during the national November lockdown.
Officials said the original three tiered system was “not enough” to control the spread of the new, more contagious variant.
Meanwhile, scientists have said lockdowns which keep schools open is also not enough to control cases being driven by the new strain, and could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the next six months.
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