Two thirds of NHS hospitals currently have more Covid patients than they did on England’s worst day in April last year when the pandemic first exploded, official figures show as the Government last night shifted back to a total national lockdown to ‘protect the NHS’.
There were a record 26,000 infected patients taking up hospital beds across England on January 2, the most recent day data is available for, and doctors warn admissions are still accelerating as the second wave rages on.
Boris Johnson last night announced the toughest lockdown since spring amid fears the resurgence of the virus, driven by a super-infectious new variant, is already worse than the first.
London yesterday reported that 828 new coronavirus patients were admitted to hospital on January 2, which is the highest number for nine months and close to the one-day record of 883 in March 2020.
Some hospitals in hard-hit areas such as Kent and East Sussex are seeing up to three times as many coronavirus patients as they did on April 12, the point of the first wave at which patient numbers were highest.
NHS staff from across the country say caring for surging numbers of people is becoming more and more difficult, with one London hospital last week declaring it was in ‘disaster’ mode. One doctor said medics in some badly hit areas are already having to decide how to ration ventilators for patients in intensive care and face ‘horrifying’ choices at work.
Chief of healthcare union NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said the spike in Covid inpatients since Christmas alone would be enough to fill 18 hospitals. And the Royal College of Surgeons’s president, Professor Neil Mortensen, warned that patient numbers are now so high that cancer operations may have to be sidelined again.
NHS England statistics show that, in the most recent data from December 29, 81 out of 127 major hospital trusts had more Covid patients than on April 12.
Many of the worst affected are in the South East and London, where the new fast-spreading variant of the virus has taken hold, with those regions now making up a majority of the daily positive tests being reported.
Hospitals in the North West, which endured the full force of the second wave earlier in the autumn, have now seen patient numbers drop to more manageable levels. The new strain of the virus is not yet spreading as widely in the North of the country.
Graph shows the NHS hospital trusts that have the highest number of Covid-19 patients now compared to in April, with many hospitals seeing three or even four times as many people with the disease than they did at the height of the first wave
Chris Hopson said last night that there has been ‘another steep rise in the number of Covid cases, and the number of patients being admitted to hospital is also rising at an alarming rate.
‘There are almost 9,000 more Covid patients in hospital beds – the equivalent of nearly 18 hospitals – than there was on Christmas Day, just 10 days ago.
‘We know that number is going to continue to rise over the next few weeks. The lockdown announcement will help, but only if everyone follows the rules.’
NHS figures show that on the worst day in the first wave, April 12, there were 18,974 people with Covid-19 in England’s hospitals.
On December 29 this was 21,787. It has since spiralled to 26,626 but hospital-by-hospital data is not yet available for the extra 5,000 patients.
December’s data shows that London has the greatest number of Covid patients in hospital – in part because it has the biggest population – but there have been far sharper rises in the South East and the East of England.
In the East of the country, inpatient numbers are 74 per cent higher than they were in the spring, with 2,922 patients on December 29 compared to 1,679 on April 12.
There were 62 per cent more in the South East – 3,796 compared to 2,342.
In London, the Midlands and the South West, there were between eight and nine per cent more patients at the end of December than at the country’s peak in April.
But the North East, North West and Yorkshire all now have fewer inpatients than they did nine months ago.
Many hospitals in the North, however, experienced the same spiralling pressures now being seen in the South at the start of the first wave in September, October and November, when cases were still low in other parts of the country.
Mid and South Essex NHS trust, which runs hospitals in Southend, Basildon and Chelmsford, is one of the ones to have seen the biggest spike in patients during the second wave. On December 29 it had 785 people on wards with Covid-19, which was 411 more than double the 374 on April 12, England’s peak.
East Kent Hospitals has seen admissions almost three times as high, with 415 patients compared to 143, while the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells trust had 3.5 times as many patients in December: 299 compared to 85.
Surgeons have warned that the rising numbers of patients being seen across the country could mean that cancer operations fall by the wayside again.
Doctors were already trying to make their way through a backlog of millions of non-Covid patients before the second wave struck, and this progress is now threatened again despite officials saying cancelling routine operations again would be unthinkable.
The first operations to be postponed are non-urgent ones for conditions that aren’t life-threatening, such as joint replacements and cataracts. More serious procedures such as organ surgeries or cancer operations are kept going for longer until health bosses have no choice but to cancel them due to a lack of staff or recovery beds.
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, warned the situation in hospitals is getting ‘much worse’, and escalating faster than the ‘slow-motion car crash’ he previously predicted.
King’s College Hospital in south London has already called off all ‘priority 2’ cancer operations, procedures which specialists have judged to be urgent and need to be done within 28 days of a decision to undertake them.
It is feared other hospitals in the country may face the same difficult decision in the coming days if admissions don’t start to fall.
Professor Mortensen told Times Radio: ‘My colleagues in London doing ward rounds, for example, report that there are problems with staff numbers on the wards, staff numbers in theatres.
‘And then of course if you need to go to the intensive care unit, if the intensive care unit is full of Covid patients there’s no room for you.
‘So it’s a really serious situation and, obviously, the less-priority operations have already stopped in many places – hips, knees, ENT (ear nose and throat) procedures.
‘We’re now concerned about operations like cancer surgeries being cancelled or postponed because there just isn’t the capacity to be able to manage them.’
He added: ‘I think if you have a delayed operation for cancer that may have an effect.
‘If you come in from a road traffic accident and you’re seriously ill, and you need to go to an intensive care unit afterwards and there is no intensive care unit, that’s going to have serious consequences.
‘And that’s why everybody is so concerned right now that we are properly locked down, that we’re as far as we possibly can reducing the transmission of the virus, and making it possible for what facilities we do have to carry on working effectively to keep people alive.’