Coronavirus: will crisis in NHS hospitals trigger lockdown tightening?
Covid patients occupying 30,000 beds as government scrambles to stem rate of infections
The government is considering stronger lockdown measures in a bid to prevent NHS hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.
A total of 30,758 people were receiving treatment in hospitals across the country yesterday, up from 29,462 the previous day, according to official data. And the number of critically ill patients requiring mechanical ventilation beds has almost doubled since 27 December to just under 3,000.
Documents seen by the BBC reveal that Southend Hospital has “had to reduce the amount of oxygen it uses to treat patients” as a result of shortages. The Guardian reports that Barts Health NHS trust in London has started cancelling surgery for patients with advanced cancer.
Meanwhile, around 170 bodies are being kept in a “pop-up morgue” in Surrey, HuffPost says, after the county’s hospital mortuaries reached capacity amid a rapid rise in Covid-related deaths.
‘Nothing we have seen before’
Bed occupancy for patients suffering from Covid-19 fell to a low of 451 in early September, but has been rising steadily since 9 December, when 13,467 people were hospitalised, government figures show.
London continues to be the worst-hit area in the country, with 7,494 people currently in hospital. The Southeast has also been badly impacted by the new variant of the virus, with a total of 5,373 hospitalised patients in the region.
The government is today rolling out its “Vaccine Delivery Plan”, with the goal of inoculating at least 13 million people by mid-February. But as Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham notes, “any positive vaccine news could quickly become overrun by the alarming situation in Britain’s hospitals”.
Government officials admit the crisis “is likely over the next three weeks to become like nothing we have seen before”, he continues. “A government official tells Playbook that on current projections deaths are likely to approach a peak of close to 2,000 per day.”
That grim message is underlined by The Times, which reports that Boris Johnson last night told the cabinet that challenge facing the NHS was “parlous and perilous”.
“Downing Street fears that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed if compliance does not improve,” the paper adds.
A new public awareness campaign was launched over the weekend calling for people to “stay at home”, in a bid to bolster public compliance with lockdown rules. The campaign is being fronted by England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, who warns that “the new variant, is spreading quickly across the country”.
Appearing on BBC Breakfast today, Whitty urged members of the UK public people to “minimise” the time they spend outside of their homes, adding: “I think everybody accepts that this is the most dangerous time we’ve really had in terms of numbers into the NHS at this point in time.”
He continued: “Vaccines give clear hope for the future, but for now we must all stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”
The campaign launch has been triggered by “growing fears that people have not been observing social distancing rules”, says Sky News.
Ministers last night agreed to “toughen enforcement of the rules”, with a focus on retail outlets, The Times reports. A government source told that paper that supermarkets may be made legally responsible for enforcing mask wearing and social distancing, after a Public Health England study of track-and-trace data found that the stores were the most common site of exposure to the coronavirus.
“We’ll be looking at whether all the right protections are in place - including ensuring social distancing is being followed, that one-way operations are in place, that there are limits on the number of people in stores at one time and that all customers are wearing masks,” the source said.
A second government source added that the exemption in the rules that allows people to go out for exercise once a day is also under scrutiny, amid fears that it is being “misused”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick have been asked to “put pressure on police and local authorities respectively to do more to drive home the message”, The Times adds.
The government has cross-bench support for tightening the existing restrictions, after Keir Starmer yesterday told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that the current measures “may not be tough enough”.
The Labour leader - who last week faced scrutiny over the timing of his call to close schools - added that rules allowing nurseries to remain open may need to be reassessed.
“Quite a lot of people are surprised that primary schools are closed and that nurseries aren’t closed,” he said.