'We're in for a tough winter': NHS boss issues warning as UK faces Europe's highest Covid death rate

Covid has been rising in recent weeks, can the NHS cope? Emily Morgan reports

The UK is "in for a tough winter" with coronavirus cases surging and pressure on hospitals growing, the new boss of NHS England has said.

Amanda Pritchard, being grilled by MPs on what appears to be a resurgence of Covid-19 following early success in the vaccination programme, said England has "5,900 people with Covid in our [hospital] beds at the moment and that number is going up".

She said the increase in people becoming seriously ill with coronavirus, coupled with reduced capacity in the NHS and the need to carry out planned appointments, means hospitals are under a "lot of pressure".

What's the situation now?

The NHS waiting list is currently at the longest it has ever been, with 5.74 million people waiting for hospital treatment - recent figures showed the list is growing by around 100,000 a month.

There were 43,738 new cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday, following on from Monday's near 50,000.

The UK also reported 223 on Tuesday new deaths from Covid-19 - the highest figure since March 9.

There was also the highest ever number of patients seen in A&E in September and 14 times as many Covid patients in hospital compared with the same month last year, according to Prof Stephen Powis, the health service's national medical director.

Analysis from ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan

It’s always tempting to look at one day’s set of Covid figures and worry we’re heading in one direction or the other.

The number of deaths recorded today, 223, is very sad and the highest such number since March.

It doesn’t mean this will continue to rise nor does it mean it’s a trend. Tuesday’s always record high Covid rates and deaths because of a lag in reporting over the weekend.

That said, cases have been slowly creeping up since September and we shouldn’t be complacent. 

We should be complacent for a number of reason: immunity from the vaccine is waning in people who had it early on, there are very few measures in place stopping us mixing and we know that the Oxford/AZ vaccine isn’t as effective at stopping transmission of the Delta variant so it will continue to spread among people whose immune it’s is waning.

All those factors mean if cases continue to rise, there will be vulnerable people who catch it.

The more vulnerable people who have it the higher the risk of becoming seriously ill or even dying. The government said it’s watching Covid cases carefully but so will the rest of us.

Ms Pritchard said the NHS is struggling to catch up on the elective care backlog because of coronavirus patients taking up hospital capacity.

"If we’ve got Covid patients in our beds then obviously that has an impact on how many elective patients can be in those same beds," she told the Health and Social Care Committee.

She said the NHS is doing “absolutely everything” it can to protect planned hospital care, “but we just need to recognise that we are in for a difficult winter".

It was put to Ms Pritchard that the UK has the "highest case rate and the highest death rate in Europe", with former health secretary Jeremy Hunt asking whether that represented an "urgent need to turbo charge" the booster and school jab programmes.

Amanda Pritchard (right) became chief executive of NHS England in August. Credit: PA

Ms Pritchard, who became NHS England chief executive in August, insisted there is "plenty capacity" to drive forward the booster vaccine rollout and there is "no delay" in sending out invitations.

But she said people are "not coming forward as quickly when they receive their invitation [for a third dose] as we certainly saw for the first jabs".

In a bid to increase third dose take up, she added: "Covid is still with us, it is serious, boosters really do make a difference in boosting immunity".

Why are cases rising?

According to Professor Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia cases are rising because of two reasons.

The first reason was that the UK has few social distancing measures or other restrictions compared to Europe.

The second reason Prof Hunter gave was he believes immunity from previous jabs or infections is beginning to wane.

The NHS claims not enough people are coming forward for their booster jab - just 3.8 million have had it despite nearly 8 million being eligible.

For schoolchildren seeking inoculation, Ms Pritchard said the national vaccination booking service will open to 12-15 year olds soon, to "make the most of half-term" when children are away from class - "for the next two weeks in particular".

Downing Street has said it is keeping a “very close eye” on increasing Covid-19 case rates and acknowledged there are indications that hospital admissions and deaths are also rising.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “We have seen case rates rising, we’ve started to see some indications that hospitalisations and death rates are increasing also.

Many elderly people are now eligible for their booster jab and they're being encouraged to take up invitations for their third dose. Credit: PA

“Clearly we’re keeping a very close eye on rising case rates, the most important message for the public to understand is the vital importance of the booster programme and indeed for those children who are eligible to come forward and get our jab…

“We’re seeing some groups come forward slightly more slowly than they did perhaps when they were getting their first or second vaccination and it’s important that the public understand that getting your booster jab is just as important as getting your first and second dose, and we need individuals to come forward because it is a huge benefit to them and wider society.”