With the latest data showing 2,082 hospital admissions on 28 December – the highest since February – and another record rise in infections on Thursday, NHS chiefs and clinicians are concerned the spread on wards could lead to mass outbreaks among patients and staff.
Meanwhile, there are fears that new year celebrations on Friday night could also see a further spike in the number of cases amid a shortage of rapid tests. On Thursday health secretary Sajid Javid admitted in a letter to MPs that lateral flow supplies would continue to be “constrained” for two weeks.
Mr Javid’s warning comes as number of Covid-19 positive patients in hospital jumped by 1,000 for a second day running reaching a total of 11,452 on Thursday.
A further 189,213 lab-confirmed infections were recorded in the UK in the 24 hours up to 9am on Thursday, another record rise in Covid cases. The government said a further 332 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid, although that figure includes a backlog of hospital deaths in England in the five days from Christmas Eve.
During a call this week, the message from NHS England to hospital chiefs was that they should “prepare for the worst but hope for the best,” according to sources.
NHS England leaders reportedly highlighted the “increasing rate” of admissions and said services were likely 10 days away from the peak.
Hospital chiefs and clinicians told The Independent they are fearful that the delivery of care will be seriously impacted in the coming days as the spread of Covid-19 in hospitals intensifies, leading to mass outbreaks among staff and patients, the closure of wards and cancelled operations.
Nearly 4,000 fewer daily operations are currently being conducted across the NHS due to rising pressures from the Omicron wave, analysis suggests, while the rate of Covid hospitalisations for England appears to be tracking modelled scenarios produced by government scientists.
The strain on healthcare services is set to be exacerbated by the increasing spread of Covid-19 within hospitals. NHS insiders have told The Independent they have tackled “multiple outbreaks” over the past week, while some trusts have been forced to close entire wards.
The warning comes as New Year’s Eve celebrations between people who have not been able to test themselves were described as “perfect” for spreading coronavirus by a leading scientist.
Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s very worrying indeed.
“We know the situations in which transmission happens and fortunately I don’t think we are facing the sort of lockdown that was necessary in order to cope in the very earliest part of this year.
“But we do know that crowding together in poorly ventilated spaces, particularly if you are shouting over loud music, is absolutely perfect in terms of transmitting this very, very highly transmissible virus.”
Government data shows that the number of patients catching Covid in hospital is also continuing to soar. Out of 9,731 people reported to be in hospital with Covid in the seven days to 28 December, 1,942 acquired the virus after being admitted for another health issue.
This means the hospital-acquired infection (HAI) rate for England has increased to 20 per cent, having been around 10 per cent before the emergence of Omicron, and is high as 25.9 per cent for London.
One senior doctor in Birmingham said “we certainly are having more issues with Covid-19 outbreaks on wards”, adding that its spread was impacting planned operations, constraining bed capacity and forcing rising numbers of staff into self-isolation.
The doctor said if they were to test positive for Covid, their department would have “no one else left” to manage it, with the majority of other senior doctors off sick. One hospital lead in London said they’d had to manage “multiple outbreaks” last week and move patients around to keep wards open.
Rory Deighton, senior programme lead for acute care at the NHS Confederation, said: “Health leaders are seeing that Omicron is markedly different from other strains of coronavirus, with an enhanced level of transmissibility leading to case rates they have never seen before, especially in London.
“In this environment and even with the best infection prevention and control measures, sadly it’s inevitable that the risk of hospital-acquired infections will increase. The impact of the current wave is being felt in the NHS’ ability to deliver care for non-Covid patients.”
According to a health service tracker produced by the University of Birmingham, there were 3,755 fewer operations on Wednesday than usually seen at this time of year before Covid.
Data published by University Hospitals Birmingham, one of the largest trusts in the country, showed on Thursday it had more Covid positive patients across its four hospitals than any time during the pandemic.
“The very sharp rise in hospitalisations across London and England are early indicators of what’s to come,” said Dr Deepti Gurdasani, epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London.
“Mixing over Christmas will have worsened this, especially given even those who are vaccinated/boosted are now more vulnerable to being infected with Omicron compared to Delta. We’ll see the consequences of mixing in a couple of weeks.
“Even if some admissions are incidental, and some down to nosocomial spread, all of these will ultimately contribute to significant pressures on the system, and patient outcomes.”
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