More Covid patients in hospital now than at start of lockdown, government experts warn

Video report by ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan

There are now more patients in hospital with coronavirus than there were when Boris Johnson announced the UK-wide full lockdown in March, the medical director of NHS England has said.

In a Downing Street press conference, Professor Steve Powis said hospital admissions are "rising fastest" in areas with highest infection, such as the North West, but he warned the spread is accelerating across the country and to older, more vulnerable members of the population.

He said the UK's high Covid-19 infection rate will soon be followed by a jump in hospital admissions and the death toll will be "too great to bear" if new government restrictions do not have a significant impact.

He said: "There is still no cure, nor no vaccine for Covid-19. That means sadly as the number of those infected increases, then so will the number of people who die and that is why the government is looking at what other measures could be introduced in the areas where infection is rising the most .

"As the Secretary of State for Health has said, if we do not take measures to control the spread of the virus, the death toll will be too great to bear."

To help the NHS deal with a rise in hospital admissions, Professor Powis said all hospital staff in high-risk areas will now be tested regularly regardless of symptoms.

He added how Nightingale Hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate have been asked to prepare for more patients in the winter months.

He warned that in the last four weeks, hospitals in the North West and the North East have witnessed a seven-fold increase in Covid patients in their intensive care units.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said there had clearly been a "marked pick-up" in coronavirus cases, which would result in more deaths.

The pressures on the NHS is set to rise during winter. Credit: PA

"The key point is that having had a rather flat summer, with very low amounts of Covid-positive patients in the UK, you can see that from early September there has been a marked pick-up," he said.

The deputy chief medical officer made the comments as he explained a map showing the “heating up” of rates across the UK between September 23-29 and September 30 to October 6.

He said: “It has changed in a matter of just a few days and that is clearly of concern to me.”

Prof Van-Tam also warned that coronavirus was spreading from younger age groups into those aged 60 and over - some of society's most vulnerable.

"This is again of significant concern," he said, "because of course the elderly suffer a much worse course with Covid-19, they are admitted to hospital for longer periods, and they are more difficult to save."

Professor Powis said: "In the over-65s - particularly the over-85s - we are seeing steep rises in the numbers of people being admitted to hospital so the claim that the elderly can somehow be fenced off from risk is wishful thinking."

Data shown at the briefing showed a clear rise in infection rates throughout all four nations of the UK, with the second wave of cases more than double the first wave.

Graph showing the levels of coronavirus infection across nations of the UK. Credit: PA

But Mr Van Tam said hospital admissions are expected to rise significantly, in line with the infection rate, because there is a lag in between someone's positive test and when they enter hospital.

Dr Jane Eddleston, medical lead in Greater Manchester, urged the public to "respect" the virus due to the "extremely serious" consequences it has for some patients.

She said there has been a "threefold increase" in the number of patients admitted to intensive care in Greater Manchester the last five weeks.

Prof Van-Tam said other regions are now following the North West of England pattern where the virus moved through the age bands, having started spiking among young people at first.

"There is the spread from those younger age groups into the 60-plus age group in the North West and the North East, and there are rates of change in the same places but also extending a little further south," he said.

"And this is again of significant concern, because of course the elderly suffer a much worse course with Covid-19, they are admitted to hospital for longer periods, and they are more difficult to save."

Graph showing increase in hospital admissions.

The data briefing comes ahead of a major update on new restrictions from the prime minister in the Commons this afternoon.

Prime Minister Johnson is expected to announce a new tier system for imposing local lockdowns around England, with areas being carved up into “medium”, “high”, or “very high” alert levels.

ITV News understands Merseyside will be the first area to be placed in the "very high" category, although negotiations are still ongoing over financial support.

It is also believed that Manchester and parts of the North East, which had been slated for similar tougher measures, will not be placed in the top tier.

Details are yet to be confirmed but it is thought tier three will force pubs and bars, betting shops, casinos, and gyms to close.

Reports also suggest people will have to avoid all non-essential travel and to not travel between areas.