London Mayor Sadiq Khan has declared a “major incident” as the spread of coronavirus threatens to “overwhelm” the capital’s hospitals.
City Hall said Covid-19 cases in London have exceeded 1,000 per 100,000, while there are 35% more people in hospital with the virus than at the peak of the pandemic in April.
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”.
Mr Khan has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking for more financial support for Londoners who need to self-isolate and are unable to work, and for daily vaccination data.
He is also asking for the closure of places of worship and for face masks to be worn routinely outside the home, including in crowded places and supermarket queues.
The Nightingale hospital in the capital will open in the next few days to take patients without Covid, thereby freeing up beds in hospitals for those with the virus.
Mr Khan said: “The situation in London is now critical, with the spread of the virus out of control.
“The number of cases in London has increased rapidly, with more than a third more patients being treated in our hospitals now compared to the peak of the pandemic last April.
“Our heroic doctors, nurses and NHS staff are doing an amazing job but, with cases rising so rapidly, our hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically.
Today I have declared a major incident in London because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point. One in 30 Londoners now has COVID-19. If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die.
— Mayor of London (gov.uk/coronavirus) (@MayorofLondon) January 8, 2021
“We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point. If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die.
“Londoners continue to make huge sacrifices and I am today imploring them to please stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary for you to leave. Stay at home to protect yourself, your family, friends and other Londoners and to protect our NHS.”
City Hall said the London Ambulance Service is now taking up to 8,000 emergency calls a day, compared with 5,500 on a typical busy day.
Firefighters have been helping to drive ambulances and have responded to 100,000 incidents since they volunteered to help in April.
London’s regional director of Public Health England, Professor Kevin Fenton, said the situation now is the “biggest threat our city has faced in this pandemic to date”.
“The emergence of the new variant means we are setting record case rates at almost double the national average, with at least one in 30 people now thought to be carrying the virus.
“Our NHS services are under immense pressure and currently another 800 people are being admitted to our hospitals every day. We know this will sadly lead to large numbers of deaths, so strong and immediate action is needed.
“In order to ease the burden on our hospitals, we must first stop the spread. That means we have to stay at home. Cut your contacts, reduce your movements, do as little as possible.
“A lot has been asked of Londoners over the past 12 months but your decisions and actions right now have never been more important.”
St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south London, has had to vastly expand its intensive care capacity and move staff without specialist training to high dependency roles in an effort to tackle the workload.
The PA news agency was granted rare behind-the-scenes access on Wednesday to the coronavirus front line at St George’s, which has seen its number of coronavirus patients at least matching the first peak.
Staff said they are “resilient” to the challenge ahead, but conceded there is little room for manoeuvre.
Dr Mark Haden, an emergency department consultant, said: “We make it look like business as usual but it’s very much not – it’s very different to our usual pattern of work.
“Everyone’s stress levels are higher than usual. Everyone is working to the limit, to the threshold of what they’re able to.
“The hospital bed occupancy is very, very high, it has lots of Covid patients as inpatients at the moment. It’s very stressful for staff and that is starting to show.”
St George’s has had to expand the number of intensive care beds for the critically sick from 60 to 120, the vast majority of which are for coronavirus patients.
Meanwhile, new analysis shows more than half of all major hospital trusts in England currently have more Covid-19 patients than at the peak of the first wave of the virus.
In two regions – eastern England and south-east England – more than three-quarters of trusts are above their first-wave peak.