The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital soared during Christmas week according to new figures which also show the UK has seen another record number of daily cases.
There were 11,898 Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals as of 8am on December 29, Government data shows, up 44% compared to the previous week, and the highest number since March 2.
In England alone, the number of patients in hospital has climbed to its highest level since February.
A further 189,213 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases have been recorded in the UK as of 9am on Thursday, the Government said, another new record for daily reported cases.
The total includes reported figures for Wales covering a two-day period.
It comes as the Government faces increasing pressure to give NHS staff priority access to lateral flow tests amid ongoing supply issues.
There has been a surge in demand for Covid-19 tests as people try to comply with advice to limit the spread of the Omicron variant by ensuring they do not have coronavirus before socialising.
Both the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the British Medical Association urged ministers to ensure key workers are first in line to access tests to help ease staffing issues.
Concerns have been raised about staff shortages due to high numbers with Covid-19 or self-isolating.
The BMA said there are more than 18,000 staff absent from acute hospital trusts in England, adding it expected that figure to be much higher when the most recent data is published later this week.
BMA chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said: “The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has no doubt had a massive impact on demand for lateral flow test kits and PCR tests, however it is vital that the promised new supply of kits are offered to key workers such as health and social care staff as a priority.
“Being unable to get the tests means staff may not be legally allowed to work, and at a time of acute workforce shortages and winter pressures this could be devastating for the care that can be given right across the NHS.”
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary and chief executive, said: “As the number of staff forced into sickness absence due to Covid-19 related reasons continues to increase it is vital staff have access to tests to protect themselves and their patients.
“We know, however, some staff continue to face problems accessing the tests online and would urge government to make the tests available for nursing staff as a priority, as well as ensuring there is the lab capacity for analysing tests.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has also called for NHS workers to be put “at the front of the queue” for tests.
In a tweet, he said: “Shortages of tests and delays in getting results risks exacerbating the staffing pressures in the NHS and other critical national infrastructure.
“I’ve written to the Health Secretary urging him to make sure that they’re at the front of the queue.”
On Thursday, the Welsh Government announced it would loan England four million lateral flow tests, bringing the total the country has given England to 10 million.
First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “Wales has a significant stock of lateral flow tests, sufficient to meet our needs over the weeks ahead.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said the supply of lateral flow devices (LFDs) is being tripled in January and February from a pre-Omicron plan of 100 million to 300 million per month.
In a letter to MPs, he said: “To respond to anticipated demand over the coming few weeks we are buying hundreds of millions more LFD tests, bringing new products on board and accelerating their deployment to the public.”
But “in light of the huge demand for LFDs seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day”.
The public has faced issues ordering online tests in recent days, with home delivery slots for lateral flow tests unavailable on the Gov.uk website by 9am on Thursday.
Pharmacies have also complained about patchy supplies of lateral flow kits.
The UK Health Security Agency said on Wednesday that eight million lateral flow test kits would be made available to pharmacies by New Year’s Eve.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously urged people in England heading out for New Year’s Eve festivities on Friday to get tested.
Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the conditions at a New Year’s Eve gathering were “perfect” for spreading coronavirus.
“I think it’s very worrying indeed,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We know the situations in which transmission happens and fortunately I don’t think we are facing the sort of lockdown that was necessary in order to cope in the very earliest part of this year.
“But we do know that crowding together in poorly ventilated spaces, particularly if you are shouting over loud music and so on, is absolutely perfect in terms of transmitting this very, very highly transmissible virus.”
In England, unlike other parts of the UK, nightclubs remain open and there are no limits on social mixing.
The NHS Covid Pass is required for entry to nightclubs but this can be obtained by people who are double-jabbed, rather than requiring proof of a negative test.
The latest daily figures also show a further 332 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
This includes a backlog of hospital deaths reported by NHS England covering the period of December 24-29.