Covid situation likely to worsen, doctors warn, as UK hits record infections and deaths

Ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital, which has seen a huge increase in Covid patients. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Doctors have warned pressure on the NHS is likely to worsen in the coming weeks, as coronavirus figures for daily deaths, hospital admissions and infections rise.

The government has doubled down on its "stay at home" message by launching a new public health advert, fronted by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, urging everyone in England to “act like you’ve got” Covid-19.

On Friday, the UK recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic so far, with a further 1,325 people having died of the disease within 28 days of testing positive. It takes the UK total to 79,833.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Dr Simon Walsh, deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s consultants committee, is one of a number of doctors who have warned conditions in the UK could worsen before they get better.

The London-based emergency care doctor said the epidemiology from the previous wave indicates the situation is likely to worsen over the next two to three weeks.

He said: “I’m afraid all of us who are working on the front line believe, and this is based on the evidence I’m afraid, that it is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Dr Justin Varney, director of public health at Birmingham City Council, said hospitals had still not seen the full extent of patients who caught coronavirus over Christmas.

The former GP told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We still haven’t seen the impact in the NHS of the rapid rise that we saw around December 28-29 after the Christmas bubble and after we started to see the new variant arriving in the region.

“It is going to get a lot, lot worse unless we really get this under control but some of that is already baked into the system and it is going to play out over the next week or two.”

The current lockdown has been branded “too lax” by a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, said there is still “a lot of household contact” and that the “wide definition of critical workers” means “30-50% of (school) classes (are) full-up”.

Prof Michie, who is also part of Independent Sage, told Today: “It is definitely too lax, because if you think about it and compare ourselves with March, what do we have now?

“We have the winter season and the virus survives longer in the cold, plus people spend more time indoors and we know aerosol transmission, which happens indoors, is a very big source of transmission for this virus.

“And secondly we have this new variant which is 50-70% more infectious. You put those two things together, alongside the NHS being in crisis, we should have a stricter rather than less strict lockdown than we had back in March.”

Professor Robert West, a participant in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) and also part of Independent Sage, echoed her words, saying the current lockdown rules are “still allowing a lot of activity which is spreading the virus”.

Asked if he thinks they should change, he told BBC News: “Yes, I do. Not just me. I think probably most of the people I talk to, epidemiologists, and medical scientists and virologists.”

With the current lockdown and vaccine rollout, deaths from coronavirus are expected to start dropping in February, while hospital admissions should fall after that.

Coronavirus cases are expected to drop in the spring due to vaccination plus the fact people spend more time outdoors, making it harder for the virus to spread.

Hospitals are struggling to maintain safe staff levels. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

More than half of all major hospital trusts in England currently have more Covid-19 patients than at the peak of the first wave.

Hospitals are also seeing far more younger people than during the first wave, scientists said.

In London, mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” as the spread of coronavirus threatens to “overwhelm” the capital’s hospitals.

A “major incident” means the “severity of the consequences” associated with it are “likely to constrain or complicate the ability of responders to resource and manage the incident”.

NHS England figures showed the number of Covid patients in London hospitals stands at 7,277, up 32% on the previous week.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said an estimated one in 70 people in private households in Wales had Covid-19 between December 27 and January 2 – the equivalent of 44,100 people, or 1.45% of the population.

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This compares with an estimated one in 50 people in England during the same period.

Separate estimates by the ONS suggest around one in 115 people in private households in Scotland had Covid-19 in that period while in Northern Ireland, it was an estimated one in 200 people.

Around eight in 10 recent positive cases of Covid-19 in London and eastern England could be the new variant discovered in the UK, according to the ONS.

The approval of the Moderna vaccine by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Friday means the UK should have three vaccines to use when it comes on stream in spring.