Another 53,285 people in Britain have been diagnosed with Covid-19, marking four days in a row that there have been more than 50,000 positive tests announced.
The daily case count has surged 63 per cent in a week, from 32,275 last Friday, meaning a staggering 253,720 people have received positive test results since Monday this week.
And 613 more people have died with the virus – including an eight-year-old child – taking the total official death toll to 74,125. The eight-year-old died in England on December 30 and had other health problems, the NHS said.
Department of Health records show there were 23,823 people in hospital with the virus by December 28, the most recent update.
The count of fatalities has been erratic this week in the wake of a string of bank holidays, during which hospitals don’t record them as reliably. Death records were lower than usual over the long Christmas weekend, dropping to 230 deaths on Boxing Day, then higher than expected mid-week, rising to 981 on Wednesday, December 30. The week-long average is 554 deaths per day.
Coronavirus infections have surged over the Christmas holiday with the toughest lockdown measures for most of the country held off until Boxing Day or even later, allowing thousands of families to mix on December 25.
Cases are being driven up by the new super-infectious variant of coronavirus which emerged in the South East but has since spread nationwide.
And with London, Kent and Essex now at the epicentre of England’s second wave – two thirds of today’s cases (33,573) were from those three regions alone – pressure is piling onto hospitals in the area with some declaring they are already in ‘disaster mode’ even coping with admissions from a week or two ago when cases were lower.
Panic has gripped the NHS in London, with grim reports of ambulances queuing in the street outside A&E departments and one doctor warning she and her colleagues are already having to make tough choices about which patients should get ventilators.
London has once again become the centre of England’s crisis, with 15,089 of the cases confirmed today diagnosed in the capital city and hospitals there reporting that their wards are bursting at the seams.
Second worst affected was the South East, where a further 10,844 cases were confirmed today, followed by the East of England with 7,640.
These regions are the ones where the new variant, which may be 56 per cent more infectious and so fast-spreading that normal lockdown measures don’t work, emerged and where it now makes up a majority of infections.
DOCTORS SAY THEY WILL DEFY ORDER TO NOT GIVE SECOND DOSES OF PFIZER VACCINE
Doctors say they will defy Government orders to give a second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to elderly patients who were promised one when they got their first jabs.
A row has broken out over ministers’ decision to ration vaccine supplies to get single doses to as many people as they can in a scramble to stem the tide of Covid deaths.
Officials, warning that supply shortages could last until spring, have said patients who already had one dose of the vaccine should have their second one – which they were told they’d get three weeks later – postponed for up to 12 weeks.
But doctors have revolted and said they won’t deny vulnerable patients the vaccines they promised them amid concerns the jabs won’t work as well with just one dose.
GPs blasted the policy as ‘grossly unfair’ and frustrated scientists warned that clinical trials of the vaccine only tested how well it worked with a three-week gap, so there is no evidence the new regime would work long-term.
Experts backing the policy change, however, have hit back and said every second dose that gets given is one more person missing out on their first, potentially life-saving vaccine.
Former Department of Health vaccination chief Professor David Salisbury said: ‘Every time we give a second dose right now, we are holding that back from someone who is likely, if they get coronavirus, to die.’
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said in a letter with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that single dose could offer between 70 and 90 per cent protection against Covid-19, and having this in a larger number of people would be more effective than 95 per cent protection in half as many.
The Government has not yet laid out whether there will be sanctions for doctors who refuse to switch to the one-dose policy, with one doctor saying NHS bosses had told her to use ‘clinical discretion’.
Infections are significantly lower in the other regions, where the new variant does not appear to have got such a successful foothold, potentially because they were already in lockdown when it emerged.
For the North West there were 5,164 cases announced today, along with 3,079 in the East Midlands, 2,860 in the West Midlands, 2,175 in Yorkshire and the Humber, 2,104 in the South West and 1,340 in the North East.
There are no signs so far that the UK’s second wave is slowing down or likely to come to an end soon.
Although the numbers of infections and hospital admissions fell during November’s national lockdown, they surged upwards again when the restrictions were lifted.
The tier system appears to have worked in the North of England, which was at the heart of the outbreak during the autumn, but it came too late to the South East, East and London, where cases surged out of control over Christmas.
Widespread rules were brought in only this week, with Tier 4 imposed on a total of 44million people by Wednesday, December 30, and the rest of the country in Tier 3 except for the remote Isles of Scilly.
It will now take two or three weeks for those measures to come into effect and – if they work – bring down transmission of the virus.
But even if the lockdown rules work and bring infection rates down, hospitals will still have to cope with the aftermath of people who have already caught Covid-19, who can take two to three weeks to be hospitalised.
One doctor in London has warned that coronavirus patients on NHS intensive care wards are already in ‘competition’ for ventilators to keep them alive.
Dr Megan Smith, from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust in the capital, said medics are facing ‘horrifying’ decisions as they have to choose which patients get access to lifesaving treatment for Covid-19 and which don’t.
And she warned that an expected surge in patients triggered by people mixing with family and friends over Christmas hasn’t even started yet, with the situation expected to get worse later this month and in February.
It comes as official NHS figures show that intensive care wards across the country are struggling more this winter even though an average 743 extra beds per day have been made available to try and cope with Covid patients.
NHS England data shows that, in the last week of December, there were 743 more intensive care beds available than in the same week of 2019 – 4,394 compared to 3,651.
But in the same week there were, on average, 828 more patients in critical care – 3,340 compared to 2,512 in the December 2019 – suggesting the strain of Covid-19 is bigger than hospitals had prepared for.
Many of the extra beds are in London – 253 of them – but even this hasn’t been enough to stave off the surge in coronavirus patients.
Medics are pictured collecting a patient from an ambulance at the Royal London Hospital this morning, January 1
Over the Christmas week, two hospitals’ ICU wards were 100 per cent full, and another 11 out of 18 were more than 90 per cent full and had fewer than six beds each to use for any new patients.
Grim reports have emerged from the capital in recent days, with some of its major hospitals being forced to treat Covid-19 patients in ambulances outside or dismantling wards to make space for more intensive care patients.
Although the city has a huge Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre, nursing unions say there aren’t enough staff to man it and equipment has been removed since it was put on standby in the summer.
NHS bosses warn that even hospitals that aren’t full or almost full are struggling more than usual because of staff sickness rates and the fact that beds have to be spread out more across the hospital because of social distancing.