Pressure is building on NHS hospitals, with a steep rise in the number of people needing urgent treatment for coronavirus, senior government advisers have said.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said that while cases are rising fastest in the North of England, it is of “concern” that they are “heating up” in more parts of the country compared with a week ago.
Speaking at a press briefing ahead of an announcement on further restrictions from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 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.”
He said the rise in coronavirus cases is now being seen “nationwide” and is not solely a problem for northern England.
“This is a nationwide phenomenon now that rates are changing upwards across the UK,” he said.
NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, said there is still no cure or vaccine for Covid-19 and that more people are now in hospital with coronavirus than before restrictions were announced in March.
“Sadly, as the number of those infected increases, then so will the number of people who die,” he said.
“And that’s 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.”
Mr Johnson is to deliver a Commons statement on Monday afternoon, setting out his plan for a three-tier system, with areas in England labelled as medium, high or very high risk.
In Merseyside, which is expected to be subject to the most stringent Tier 3 controls, local leaders have been battling for an enhanced package of financial support for businesses hit by the new measures.
Dr Jane Eddleston, a consultant in intensive care medicine and anaesthesia in Manchester Royal Infirmary, urged the public to “respect” the virus due to the “extremely serious” consequences it has for some patients.
She told the Downing Street press briefing: “The North West has about 40% of all Covid cases at the moment and this is proving very challenging for us.
“Within Greater Manchester, we have seen a threefold increase in the number of patients admitted to intensive care in the last five weeks and an eightfold increase in the number of patients admitted to our hospitals.
“The situation at the moment is that 30% of our critical care beds are taken up with patients with Covid and this is starting to impact on the services we provide for other patients.”
Leaders in the North of England have questioned the evidence behind a possible closure of pubs, bars and restaurants in places subject to the strictest lockdown measures.
Prof Van-Tam said the virus spreads in closed spaces, crowded spaces and areas where people are in close contact.
He told the briefing: “We do know the virus thrives on the thing we like most, which is human contact.”
Prof Powis said the temporary Nightingale Hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate are now being mobilised to help with the spike in Covid-19 cases.
He also set out asymptomatic testing of NHS staff in high-risk areas – first announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock in June.
Prof Powis warned that it would take “a number of weeks” before the benefit of any additional measures put in place this week are shown in hospital admissions.
He also stressed that the NHS is open for all patients but said that keeping Covid-19 rates under control is key to keeping other services running.
Prof Powis admitted that the country is in a better position than in March and April but added that it is not a question of “if rates continue to rise, it’s a question of when”.
“Clearly we have learnt many things from that first wave, we have learnt better treatments for patients, and dexamethasone … we learnt that that reduces deaths,” he said.
But he warned: “R is above one – that means that infections will continue to rise – and, as infections continue to rise, then hospital admissions and impact on health services continue to rise.”
In Manchester, City Council leader Sir Richard Leese said local officials have made the case that Greater Manchester should be placed in Tier 2 as there is little evidence that pubs and bars have been responsible for the spread of the disease in the area.
“They have not been able to show us any data that connects bars and pubs in Greater Manchester with transmission of the Covid-19 virus. They have not been able to provide any evidence that closing them down will work,” he told the Today programme.
“We have far more finely-grained data collected by our own directors of public health that seems to demonstrate that there is not a particular connection between bars and restaurants and the transmission of Covid.”
We have been given no tangible scientific evidence to merit a full closure of hospitality and entertainment sectors and have been left with no option than to escalate the matter with legal action. https://t.co/lG4TYSumId
— Sacha Lord (@Sacha_Lord) October 12, 2020
Meanwhile, night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester Sacha Lord has started legal proceedings to challenge the lockdown of hospitality and entertainment venues.
The Prime Minister chaired a meeting of the Government’s Cobra contingencies committee meeting on Monday morning.
He will then hold a press conference with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, while MPs are expected to vote on the new controls on Tuesday.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the Government of treating local communities and politicians, particularly in the North West, the North East and the Midlands, “with contempt”.
“It’s just not good enough; you have to take people with you on this, listen to what local leaders are saying,” he told LBC radio.