The NHS remains under huge pressure and is operating at “full stretch” despite the UK being past the peak of the current wave of Covid-19, a leading health figure has warned.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents NHS trusts in England, called for a cautious approach to relaxing lockdown measures, claiming restrictions were lifted “too early” in 2020.
Mr Hopson said intensive care unit (ICU) numbers are coming down “very slowly”, adding that there are still 26,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals – 40% more than the peak in the first phase last April.
He also said NHS staff are “deeply exhausted” and “fatigued” having worked at “fever pitch intensity” for weeks.
His comments come after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths will continue to fall as the UK has passed the peak in the current wave of the pandemic.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, Prof Whitty said that “provided people continue to follow the guidelines”, all four nations were on the “downward slope”.
But he stressed though rates are coming down, they remain “incredibly high” – and could rise quickly – plunging the NHS “back into trouble extraordinarily fast”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said while there are “some signs of hope” with the numbers of Covid patients in hospital starting to fall, “the level of infection is still alarmingly high”.
In a series of tweets on Thursday, Mr Hopson said there has been a lot of talk about “being over the peak” and what that means for how quickly restrictions on social contact can be relaxed.
“But there are still 26,000 covid-19 patients in hospitals. That’s 40% more than the peak in the first phase of Covid last April,” he said.
“The NHS is currently running at 170% of last year’s ICU capacity and trusts were still having to create new extra ICU surge capacity last week. The ICU numbers are coming down very slowly.”
He added: “Hospital, community, ambulance and mental health services are still at full stretch.”
Mr Hopson also pointed out there is a cold snap forecast next week which will increase demand for NHS services.
He said: “NHS staff are deeply exhausted & fatigued having worked at fever pitch intensity for many weeks. So, if we want to use mountain analogies (peaks etc)…
“The NHS has barely crested the peak and it’s still at an extremely high altitude under huge pressure. The descent down the mountain has only just started and we don’t know how steep the down slope will be.
“We also know that the descent will likely take months, not days/weeks.
“We saw last year what happened when we released restrictions on social contact too quickly. The impact of the vaccination will help significantly… over time. But to save lives and reduce patient harm, we need a cautious, evidence based, approach to relaxing the restrictions.”
Elsewhere, the Government is facing pressure over the timing of its plan for hotel quarantine for returning travellers from “red list” countries.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “It is beyond comprehension that these measures won’t even start until February 15.
“We are in a race against time to protect our borders against new Covid strains.
“Yet hotel quarantine will come in to force more than 50 days after the South African strain was discovered.
“Even when these measures eventually begin, they will not go nowhere near far enough to be effective in preventing further variants. As ever with this Government, it is too little, too late.”
Meanwhile, nine in 10 eligible residents of older adult care homes have had their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, NHS data on the vaccination programme shows.
As of the end of January 31, 236,499 residents had received their first jab, out of 260,060 who were eligible for the vaccine – a total of 90.9%.
It means 23,561 eligible residents have not had a coronavirus vaccine.
Mr Hancock said one in five UK adults have received a coronavirus vaccine, adding that the UK remains on track to complete the vaccination of the top four priority groups by mid-February.
Mr Zahawi declined to put a date on when all over-50s can expect to receive a Covid-19 jab, but figures suggest late March may be an option if supplies continue.