Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt
The country is facing the "worst weeks of the pandemic", England's Chief Medical Officer has warned, amid rumours the government is considering tightening Covid lockdown rules.
Appearing on the BBC, Professor Chris Whitty also cautioned that he did not believe the UK was at the peak of the current third wave, urging people to follow lockdown rules in a bid to stop cases and deaths from rising.
His comments came as NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens told MPs that in many parts of the country coronavirus "is spreading out of control".
“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS," Prof Whitty said.
He added: “The peak we had back in April last year, we had about 18,000 people in the NHS.
"We currently, as of yesterday, have over 30,000 people in the NHS."
Speaking to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Sir Simon said: "In London perhaps one in 30 people has the coronavirus, in parts of London it may be twice that number.
"If you look across other regions of England the issue is that coronavirus is once again on the rise.
“In Merseyside in just the last week there has been a further 50% increase in the number of Covid hospitalisations.
"So this is a very serious moment for the country and for the National Health Service.
"It’s worth remembering that this affects all ages – a quarter of the Covid admissions to hospital right now are for people aged under 55."
The latest figures from Sunday show there are currently 32,294 people in hospital beds with Covid-19 in the UK.
Prof Whitty said: “A week ago, all the four chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said: ‘This is going to be a significant crisis for the NHS unless we take evasive action’."
He said it was vital we continued to vaccinate as many people as we are currently in "this really dangerous period over winter."
He continued that the new variant was driving infections in new ways which the old variant was unable to.
The UK has reported record numbers of new Covid-19 cases since the start of the new year, with daily figures around 60,000, on average.
Deaths have also been rising, with several days of figures being above 1,000 per day, numbers not seen since April - and there are no signs they will begin falling anytime soon.
The total number of deaths from the pandemic in the UK crossed over 80,000 on Saturday, a figure Prof Whitty called "shocking."
There have been rumours in some newspapers the government is considering tightening lockdown restrictions over fears people are less compliant than they were before.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly spoke with senior ministers on Sunday to evaluate “whether the current lockdown rules were working” in reducing the spike of coronavirus cases, according to the Daily Telegraph.The paper said the government was considering scrapping the exemption allowing people to exercise with one other person from outside of their household or support bubble.
There were also rumours ministers are preparing to tell supermarket bosses to get tougher on policing social distancing restrictions and mask wearing in-store.
People could also be asked to wear face coverings in shop queues and even at work, it was claimed.
Prof Whitty suggested that measures could be needed until “some time in the spring” to stem the spread of the virus.
He said: “We’ve got to make this sustainable because we got to be able to maintain this for several more weeks now.
“We’re really going to have to do a significant action for all of us for several more weeks until probably some time in the spring for very much of what we have to do.
He urged people to “double down” and stop any “unnecessary contacts” by cutting down on meetings with other households as they were the situations where the virus was passed on.
He added while the risk of catching the virus outdoors was much lower than indoors, it was still possible particularly over longer periods of contact.
Prof Whitty said: “It doesn’t care who you are, it doesn’t care whether they’re your friends. If you meet someone from another household, the virus has an opportunity to be transmitted.”
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He said he hoped that restrictions will not be necessary next winter but that society is “quite a long way” from returning to normal life, but added he was "confident" it would eventually.
As the UK enters the toughest period of the pandemic the government has continued to ramp up vaccination efforts to hits its goal of inoculating 14 million people by the middle of February.
Seven vaccination centres are due to open in England on Monday which will be joined this week by hundreds of GPs bringing the total places to where people can get the jab to around 1,200 according to NHS England.
Prof Whitty justified the delay in giving people the second dose by up to 12 weeks by saying it was about "doubling the number of people that we can vaccinate."