England's chief medical officer has urged people to adhere to lockdown rules and stay at home, as he issued a grave warning that the NHS is facing “the most dangerous situation” in living memory amid soaring coronavirus infections and hospital admissions.
Professor Chris Whitty said the only way to prevent avoidable deaths is for the public to stay at home as much as possible, as the ramping up of the mass coronavirus vaccination programme gets further underway.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Prof Whitty said the situation had “deteriorated further” since the four UK chief medical officers and the NHS medical director recommended raising the national alert level to the highest level five for the first time.
“Hospitals are always busy in winter, but the NHS in some parts of the country is currently facing the most dangerous situation anyone can remember,” he wrote.
“If the virus continues on this trajectory, hospitals will be in real difficulties, and soon. The time people wait for care will continue to increase to potentially unsafe levels… There will be avoidable deaths.”
He also warned that staff-to-patient ratios, which are already stretched thin, will become “unacceptable even in intensive care”.
It comes as official coronavirus death toll for the UK passed 80,000 on Saturday and lab-confirmed cases hit more than three million. The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital also reached a record high in England.
Epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson predicted that hospital admissions will rise by up to 10 or 20 per cent “almost regardless what we do”, and said it was “likely” the UK’s death toll from coronavirus will hit 100,000.
Prof Whitty commended the public for their “extraordinary effort” in adhering to social restrictions, but added: “We must find the collective strength to get through this critical stage and save as many lives as we can”.
He noted the positive difference Covid-19 vaccines will make once enough people have been inoculated and deaths related to the virus start going down, but cautioned that “we are not there yet and should not act as if we are”.
On Wednesday, prime minister Boris Johnson said 1.3 minion people in the UK have received their first dose of a Covid vaccine, including nearly a quarter of the most elderly, vulnerable patients. More than half a million people over the age of 80 are due to receive invitations this week to sign up for a jab, with the first 130,000 invitations arriving over the weekend.
According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), expanding the Community Testing Programme to more people without symptoms is “crucial given that around one in three people” who become infected with Covid-19 are asymptomatic.
🗣️@CMO_England Professor Chris Whitty on #coronavirus.#COVID19 is spreading quickly across the country, putting many at risk & increasing pressure on the NHS.
As we roll out vaccines, it is vital that you continue to stay at home to:
▶️ protect the NHS
▶️ save lives#StayHome pic.twitter.com/bmMMCrotFg
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) January 9, 2021
Councils will be encouraged to test people who are unable to work from home, which includes police officers, supermarket workers and taxi drivers. At the heart of the programme are lateral flow results which can return results in as little as 30 minutes.
The eligibility of the programme has been “expanded to cover all 317 local authorities”, said DHSC. Health secretary Matt Hancock said targeted asymptomatic testing followed by isolation is “highly effective in breaking chains of transmission”.