Coronavirus patients in English hospitals near April peak as NHS leaders fear threat from new variant

NHS Confederation says government must act quickly if coronavirus cases start to surge upwards outside tier 4 areas

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 22 December 2020 17:50
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<p>Hospitals in England have almost the same levels of Covid patients as they did back in April</p>

Hospitals in England have almost the same levels of Covid patients as they did back in April

The number of coronavirus patients in English hospitals is set to pass the April peak within days, leaked data indicates, as experts warned the whole country may have to be put into tier 4 restrictions.

Hospital leaders are bracing themselves for a surge in patients needing to be admitted in coming weeks with numbers already near the first wave record. Mass cancellations of operations could follow soon after the Christmas holidays if the new variant of the virus spreads beyond the southeast.

According to the latest NHS England data seen by The Independent on Tuesday, there were 18,036 patients with Covid-19 across all NHS settings, just 885 short of the 18,921 peak on 12 April.

There were 691 deaths reported on Tuesday with the number of positive infections reaching a one-day record of 36,804.

Hospitals across London and England have already begun cancelling operations and delaying diagnostic tests with staff redeployed to help care for patients. Queen’s Hospital in Romford, Essex, has now been dealing with a major incident due to “huge pressure” on services for seven days.

Some experts have called for the whole country to be placed into tier 4 restrictions after the new and more infectious variant of the virus was identified in other parts of the UK outside the southeast and London, which were placed into tier 4 at the weekend.

In the capital, hospitals have seen admissions jump more than 40 per cent – with 3,557 patients in hospitals on Tuesday – compared to the previous week.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It does look like the virus is probably across the country already and so I do think that we might, unfortunately, have to impose tougher restrictions across the country.”

Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London and a member of the Independent Sage group, said: “If I could wave a magic wand I would put everybody in tier 4 now, like today…The idea now that it is not spreading is fanciful.”

With thousands of Covid patients already in hospital, health chiefs are worried any surge in admissions caused by the new variant of Covid-19 will have a major impact on hospitals.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents more than 500 health and care organisations, told The Independent: “We’ve been warning for some time that NHS teams faced an impossible task of trying to manage Covid, respond to winter, keep non-Covid services going and launch the vaccination programme.”

He said as cases increase hospitals will “face the intolerable position of having to focus on the most clinically urgent work. What that means is that some of our non-Covid work is being affected, and will continue to be affected. We will do everything we can to maintain non-Covid services but where Covid admissions really peak, then other things start to be affected.”

He added: “People are very worried, especially in the tier 4 areas, but all our members are worried they will see increased rates of infection due to the newly identified strain of the virus. What they need to see is a quick response from the government. If we see rapidly changing patterns of infection, we need rapid decisions from the government about what restrictions need to be put in place.

“What we also need is a test and trace system that is fully functioning and truly efficient.”

Queen’s Hospital in Romford – part of the Barking, Havering and Redbridge NHS Trust – has now been dealing with a major internal incident for seven days and said it would be cancelling all non-urgent outpatient appointments from Monday. It also announced plans to delay all non-urgent operations from Monday next week, but urgent and cancer surgeries will go ahead.

Diagnostic endoscopies for patients suspected of having cancer will be moved from Monday to King George Hospital, in Ilford. Some may be carried out in private hospitals.

In a statement, the trust said the changes would be in place until 11 January at least.

It added: “We appreciate this is not what any of us were hoping for, however the pandemic is continuing to cause immense challenges across northeast London.”

On Monday, the trust had 312 patients with coronavirus compared with its previous peak of 245 in April.

Dr Nick Scriven, from the Society of Acute Medicine, said one of the challenges facing hospitals in the north of England was the high number of patients in beds from the second wave. This would mean institutions would be hit even harder if there is a third spike caused by the new mutated version.

He added: “While hospital teams in the south battle against the tide, those in the north are actually in a far more perilous state as they are anxiously waiting for the inevitable spread from a worse baseline in terms of bed availability. The other highly significant factor is staffing and how the new spread will affect the already exhausted workforce who are even now coping on reduced levels due to illness.”

In the East Midlands, the number of people with Covid-19 being cared for at Leicester’s hospitals was at its highest level since the pandemic began in March and continuing to rise. At the peak there were 204 people with Covid-19 but there were already 295 patients on Monday.

The hospital trust is opening up new community beds but also postponing some surgeries to free up staff and beds.

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