The head of the NHS in England has laid bare the extent of the pressure on hospitals across the country with thousands of new coronavirus patients admitted since Christmas Day, while shattered frontline medical staff feared that the worst is still to come.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said there were 50% more coronavirus inpatients in England’s hospitals now, compared with during the peak in April, affecting every region across the country.
He told a Downing Street press conference on Thursday: “That number is accelerating very, very rapidly. We’ve seen an increase of 10,000 hospitalised coronavirus patients just since Christmas Day.
“That is of course all happening at what is traditionally the busiest time of year for hospitals and the wider NHS.
“The pressures are real and they are growing, and that is why … it is vital that we do all take the steps necessary to control the growth of infection.”
Citing the issue in London, the epicentre of the second wave, Sir Simon added: “We are seeing over 800 patients a day admitted to London hospitals with coronavirus.
“That’s the equivalent of a new St Thomas’ hospital, full of Covid-patients, everyday.”
It came as the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital in England stood at a record 28,246 as of 8am on January 7, according to the latest figures from NHS England.
The figure is up 24% on a week ago.
St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south-west London, has had to vastly expand 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 to the coronavirus front line at St George’s on Wednesday, which has seen its number of coronavirus patients at least matching the first peak.
Staff said they were “resilient” to the challenge ahead, but conceded there was 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.
The rest are for those recovering from other serious trauma such as heart attacks or road traffic accidents.
But the expansion has had a real impact on both the staff and patients’ treatment.
Nurses who would usually be assigned to one patient are now having to deal with up to four casualties at one time.
And they are doing so while wearing uncomfortable personal protective equipment (PPE).
Such is the demand on the intensive care unit that staff from other departments are being drafted in to help – despite not being trained to do so.
ICU consultant Dr Mohamed Ahmed, 40, said: “When a nurse has care of one patient, there’s that ratio for a reason – every detail needs to be looked at.
“When they need to look after three or four patients, their standards are lowered.
“They feel they have to do their best but they come away feeling demotivated and demoralised. That’s really apparent. They clearly want to do the best they can.”
Matron Lindsey Izard said pressures on the service were immense.
“It’s not just about Covid,” she said.
“If you go up a ladder this weekend and fall off it, there’s a chance you won’t get an ICU bed.
“People are still getting run over, they’re still self-harming, they’re still beating each other up.”
Ms Izard said staff were so exhausted that she feared “a large number” would quit once the pandemic was over.
She said: “I really do think a lot of people have thought, ‘This is the writing on the wall for me as a nurse, I’m not sure I want to do this again’.”
It came as an NHS England briefing apparently showed London’s hospitals on the verge of being overwhelmed by coronavirus even under the “best case” scenario.