In Depth

Coronavirus: overwhelmed NHS hospitals diverting patients as experts warn of third wave

Official figures show that number of instances of ambulances being sent elsewhere is highest in four years

Hospitals across England are being forced to divert patients and cancel operations as the second wave of coronavirus triggers a beds shortage crisis, an investigation has revealed.

An analysis by The Guardian of NHS figures found that “hospitals had to tell ambulance crews to divert patients elsewhere 44 times last week – the highest number for four years”.

Hospitals in London, Leicester and Northampton have been “particularly hard hit” by Covid outbreaks, the paper reports. And a growing number of NHS staff are falling ill with the virus, with 250 employees at Northampton General Hospital alone currently either off sick with Covid-19 or isolating because someone in their household has symptoms.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said: “It already feels like we’re in the grips of a really bad winter, and there’s a very long way to go.”

That warning is echoed in an editorial in the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal, which says that a third wave of infections is “almost inevitable”.

“The new year is likely to see NHS trusts facing a stark choice: be overwhelmed or stop most elective and non-urgent work,” the editorial continues.

The health experts are calling on Boris Johnson to “follow the more cautious examples of Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands”, rather than ploughing ahead with his plans to lift coronavirus restrictions over Christmas despite the risk of so-called “super-spreader” events

But the prime minister is insisting that the five-day easing of the rules over the festive period will go ahead, with groups of three households to be allowed to get together indoors.

Johnson has sounded a note of caution, however, tweeting that anyone planning to form a “Christmas bubble” should “minimise contact with people from outside your household” starting today.

The three households limit is not a “target you should aim for”, but rather “very much a maximum”, the PM added, and Christmas celebrations should be “short” and “small”.

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