Covid UK: Chief medical officers say NHS risks being ‘overwhelmed’


The UK’s chief medical officers have warned of a ‘material risk of the NHS being overwhelmed’ in the next 21 days as the mutant Covid strain wreaks havoc across the country.

Parts of the health service are under ‘immense pressure’, the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and NHS England’s national medical director Professor Stephen Powis – said in a joint statement on Monday.

Their statement came as Boris Johnson plunged England into a national lockdown even more brutal than last March in a desperate bid to keep the new mutation at bay while vaccines are rolled out.

Just a day after he urged parents to send their children back, the PM declared that schools will be shut from tomorrow until at least February half-term, with only the vulnerable and offspring of key workers allowed to go in. 

He warned that Britain’s hospitals are ‘under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic’.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre has recommended today that the Covid-19 alert level be reduced

Medics transport a patient from an ambulance to the Royal London Hospital as the spread of the coronavirus disease in London last week

Medics transport a patient from an ambulance to the Royal London Hospital as the spread of the coronavirus disease in London last week

The new lockdown in England at a glance 

England will be put into a full national lockdown that will last until the February half term.

All primary and secondary schools will close with immediate effect

Classes will remain only for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. 

The plan is for them to reopen after the February half-term break.

A-Level and GCSE exams are unlikely to go ahead as planned in the summer.

Universities will also remain closed to students until mid-February.

Nurseries will remain fully open. 

The public should stay at home unless they need to leave for one of just five reasons: If they cannot work from home, shopping for necessities, exercise, to give care and for medical treatment or emergencies.

All non-essential retailers, hospitality and ‘personal care’ like hairdressers must close.

Restaurants and other eateries can continue to operate for takeaways and deliveries. 

But pubs will no longer be allowed to offer take-away alcohol sales. 

Children’s playgrounds will remain open. 

All indoor and outdoor sports venues, including golf courses, gyms, swimming pools and tennis courts must close, and team sports cannot take place, even outdoors. 

Elite sports like the Premier League can go on under their own schemes.

Under the new lockdown, all non-essential shops, hairdressers and personal care venues must close. The Covid alert level has also being raised to the highest level of five meaning there is a ‘material risk of overwhelming the NHS’.

In his speech announcing the new rules, Mr Johnson said: ‘As I speak to you tonight, 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 in hospitals 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.’ 

The scale of the problem was underlined as the latest grim daily tally was released, with 58,784 new cases – a 42 per cent rise on last Monday. 

It means the UK has passed the milestone of 50,000 infections every day for a week, suggesting that the easing of restrictions at Christmas helped fuel the outbreak.

Department of Health chiefs also posted 407 more deaths, up just 14 per cent on the figure recorded last week. 

But it can take infected patients several weeks to fall severely ill and succumb to the illness, meaning fatalities have yet to reach their peak and will continue to rise. 

The UK recorded almost 1,000 deaths twice last week, in grisly tolls not seen since the darkest days of the spring.

The letter – written by the UK’s four CMOs ahead of Mr Johnson’s address – said: ‘Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data, the four UK chief medical officers and NHS England medical director recommend that the UK alert level should move from Level 4 to Level 5.

‘Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure. There are currently very high rates of community transmission, with substantial numbers of Covid patients in hospitals and in intensive care.

‘Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant. 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.

‘Although the NHS is under immense pressure, significant changes have been made so people can still receive lifesaving treatment. 

‘It is absolutely critical that people still come forward for emergency care. If you require non-urgent medical attention, please contact your GP or call NHS 111.’ 

Downing Street issued a series of slides showing the problem the country faces due to the new variant of the virus

Downing Street issued a series of slides showing the problem the country faces due to the new variant of the virus

Following Mr Johnson’s earlier address, Professor Whitty, tweeted: ‘Covid cases are rising rapidly across the UK in large part due to the new variant.

‘The NHS is treating many more COVID patients and vaccinating vulnerable citizens. NHS staff deserve our profound thanks. But we must act now or the NHS will come under even greater pressure.’

Yesterday, it was revealed that trusts in London and the south-east at the centre of the UK’s epidemic are preparing to transfer patients to hospitals in the south-west while patients in the east of England will be moved to the Midlands.

The massive Nightingale hospital at the London Excel Centre, which was created in record-time early in the pandemic only to be swiftly mothballed, is also expected to reopen within a fortnight, the Times reports.

National pairing arrangements have been put in place amid warnings from doctors that hospitals in the South have come under ‘immense pressure’ due to a surge in cases of ‘mutant’ Covid, with hospitals across the UK being told prepare to face the same Covid pressures as the NHS in the capital.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said just a small number of patients from London would be transferred to the south-west and Midlands when space in neighbouring hospitals was exhausted.

He said: ‘Hospitals are doing a great job creating extra surge capacity in London and the south-east to treat the critically ill. If it gets more difficult, we will find other ways to treat people within the region but we know there are some patients that can be moved to where the pressure is slightly less, for example the south-west and Midlands.’

London Ambulance staff stretcher a patient from the ambulance into The Royal London Hospital in east London, on Saturday

London Ambulance staff stretcher a patient from the ambulance into The Royal London Hospital in east London, on Saturday

Dr Alison Pittard, the dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, today hinted the NHS could collapse because ‘very, very tired staff’ may not have the energy to handle the deluge in ‘mutant’ virus cases.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, she also claimed that she had heard of cases of people as young as 30 suffering from coronavirus in ICU wards and claimed that ‘younger people will die from Covid’. 

Although ICU capacity has been increased, three intensive care units were full every day last week: the Walton Centre in north-west England, and Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells and Portsmouth University hospitals in the south-east.

Fourteen intensive care units were at least 95 per cent full throughout Christmas week, five of them in London, according to the Times.

Doctors who spoke on condition of anonymity told the newspaper how consultants were choosing who to admit to intensive care by assessing which patient ‘has the best chance of surviving’.

One GP working in a west London hospital claimed: ‘We could be like Lombardy [northern Italy] by next week. There is a high likelihood we’re going to see a disaster.’

Dr Megan Smith, a consultant anaesthetist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said medics faced ‘horrifying’ decisions with patients ‘in competition’ for ventilators.

She told ITN: ‘It’s not a position any of us ever want to be in, and we’re used to making difficult decisions as doctors, but deciding the outcome of, effectively a competition for a ventilator, is just not what anyone signed up for.

‘In terms of the emotional trauma for those individuals, it’s horrifying. We shouldn’t be having to do it, but we are.’

Asked about the hospitals crisis in London and the surrounding areas, Dr Pittard said the trusts are ‘under immense pressure’.

‘It’s really difficult for staff because obviously we want to make sure everyone is cared for, but also need to look after the staff as well,’ she said. ‘So it’s really difficult for everyone working in NHS hospitals at the moment, particularly in my area of intensive care.’

She also admitted that the NHS would have to postpone ‘some of the more non-urgent stuff’, adding: ‘obviously that is one of the ways the NHS managed in the first wave, was to reduce the normal activity so that we could focus on Covid patients.

It comes as a nurse outlined the desperate situation in hospitals, with patients running out of oxygen and being left in ambulances and corridors. Pictured: The Royal London Hospital

It comes as a nurse outlined the desperate situation in hospitals, with patients running out of oxygen and being left in ambulances and corridors. Pictured: The Royal London Hospital

‘One of the things that we have done now during the second wave is to continue normal activity alongside other Covid-related activity. And we want to continue that at all costs… but of course some of the more non-urgent stuff will need to be postponed’.

Dr Pittard also revealed that NHS hospitals are seeing greater numbers of younger people being admitted for treatment than during the first wave of the epidemic last spring.

‘The age group is a lot lower than it was during the first wave, and I think that’s probably because more people are getting Covid and it is affecting younger people, perhaps younger people are realising how serious it is and they need to seek input as well,’ she told the Andrew Marr Show.

‘It does affect younger people, so just because you’re not in the older age bracket doesn’t mean you’re immune.’

She went on: ‘One of the downsides is that because we have been through it all before staff are very, very tired and that is the thing that concerns me.

‘We can’t just create staff overnight. We can get more drugs. We can get more beds and equipment but we can’t just get more staff, so that is the real concern this time around.’

Having dealt with the first wave of the virus, staff are now better prepared in terms of how they manage patients when they come into hospital and how their treatment in intensive care, she said.

‘It is almost like we know what is coming our way so we know how to deal with it.’

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