Chris Whitty has warned the coming months will be the most difficult period the NHS has endured for decades, as the second wave of coronavirus hits Britain.
The chief medical officer predicted nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers will be stretched to their limits all over again as they battle to save lives and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Despite working long hours himself in Westminster, Prof Whitty said he was more worried about the wellbeing and mental health of those in the NHS as winter closes in.
“I’m much more concerned about everybody who’s working on the front line because that’s the really hard work,” he said in an interview with the British Medical Journal.
“And as we look forward to what’s going to be an extremely difficult winter for the NHS — one that I suspect, unfortunately, will be unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory — I’m really concerned about the welfare and the morale of all the medical professionals who are working on this, because this is going to be a long and difficult slog.”
What healthcare workers achieved in the first wave, by dramatically expanding capacity in intensive care units up and down the country to prevent the NHS from collapsing, was extraordinary, Prof Whitty, said.
But they will have to do it all over again to get the country through to spring, he warned.
“I think all of us have huge admiration for what people did in the first wave. It was really extraordinary. And we’re going to have to do that again.”
Although much remains unknown about how Covid will be affected by the changing seasons, it should be assumed it will spread more during the winter months as with other respiratory viruses such as regular flu.
“So, my expectation is that, even if we do exactly the same things as we did two or three months ago, rates of infection will be higher,” Prof Whitty said.
“SARS-CoV-2 is significantly more lethal than flu, in every age group apart from maybe children. It’s extremely transmissible, as we’ve seen with these explosive outbreaks around the world. So, I think we have to assume that there will be significant outbreaks and, as a result, significant numbers of people in hospital, some of whom, sadly, will die.”
Even before the pandemic, many hospitals across the NHS needed to call in outside help to cope with a surge in patients during the winter, which will only make the task of controlling the coronavirus more difficult, he added.
According to the government’s latest Covid data, there are currently 14,915 people in hospital being treated for the disease, of which 1,355 are on ventilators receiving the most intensive care.
After a lengthy stretch over the summer where only approximately 100 more people were admitted to hospital with Covid each day, the numbers have climbed rapidly since September. This had risen to 1,800 new hospital admissions on Tuesday, the last day for which national figures are available.
However, since the second lockdown began, the numbers of new cases does appear to have started to level off, from a peak of 31,000 announced on 2 November.
Nevertheless, NHS staff should be prepared for a long struggle ahead to ensure emergency care does not come to a halt if services are over-run, Prof Whitty said.
“We fortunately avoided that in the first wave, but it’s not a given if we don’t take strong action.”
Increasing numbers of politicians, particularly Conservative backbenchers, have spoken out against the lockdown and called instead for the government to follow a ‘herd immunity’ approach instead.
But Prof Whitty insisted this idea was “wrong scientifically, practically, and probably ethically as well”.
“For the great majority of the infections I’ve dealt with — and I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist — you never get herd immunity. You don’t get it for malaria, you don’t get it for HIV, you don’t get it for Ebola.”
Furthermore, it was not even clear if catching and surviving Covid would leave lasting antibodies to prevent you from catching it a second time, he added.
And it was impossible in reality to shield those who were at serious risk of dying from the virus while permitting it to spread through the supposedly less vulnerable population.
“It would lead to a significant number of people dying who otherwise would not have died of this virus,” he stated.
“What we’ve got to do is get this virus down as low as is practical at any point in time, using the tools we’ve got, and expect that we will get medical countermeasures. I have an absolute belief in the ability of science to get us out of this hole. But it is going to take a while before we get to that point.”
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