The number of coronavirus patients in hospitals in England has risen to a record high of more than 32,000, new figures show, as the Government pleaded with people to follow lockdown rules.
Matt Hancock said the NHS is under “very significant pressure” and told the public to reduce all social contact that is “not absolutely strictly necessary” in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
The Health Secretary’s warning came as NHS England data showed there were 32,070 Covid-19 patients in English hospitals as of 8am on Monday. The figure is up 20% compared to last week, and up 81% since Christmas Day.
A further 529 people died within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus as of Monday, bringing the UK total to 81,960 – though separate figures show there have now been 97,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
Mr Hancock told a Downing Street press conference: “The NHS, more than ever before, needs everybody to be doing something right now – and that something is to follow the rules.
“I know there has been speculation about more restrictions, and we don’t rule out taking further action if it is needed, but it is your actions now that can make a difference.
“Stay at home, and please reduce all social contact that is not absolutely strictly necessary. That’s what is needed: act like you have the virus.”
He said vaccination was the “fastest route to safely lifting restrictions” and the Government was on track to vaccinate the 15 million people most at risk by the middle of February.
Almost 2.3 million people in the UK have been given a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to new figures, while 388,677 second doses have also been given.
Some 78,005 first doses have been given in Northern Ireland, on top of the 1,959,151 in England, 86,039 in Wales and 163,377 in Scotland – to give a UK total of 2,286,572.
Mr Hancock said two fifths of over-80s have now received their first dose, while almost a quarter of care home residents have received theirs, with a commitment to reach all residents by the end of January.
He also ruled out removing support or childcare bubbles, saying: “I know how important they are to people and they are an important part of the system.”
NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, told the briefing that vaccination would gradually lead to a drop in people in hospital.
“But we are not going to see it now,” he said. “We are not going to see it next week or the week after.
“It won’t be until we get to February that we are going to see the early signs of that.
“The vaccination programme gives hope but to battle the virus today, we have to comply with the guidelines today.”
He said more than 1,200 vaccination sites in England would be in place by the end of the week, including community pharmacies.
The NHS was “in a sprint” to reach the top four priority groups by mid-February, followed by the rest of the vulnerable groups by April, with a final push to offer all adults over 18 a vaccination by the autumn.
Overall, there will be 2,700 vaccine sites across the UK, according to the Government’s vaccine rollout plan.
The document sets out plans to vaccinate at least two million people a week, with ministers pledging that “tens of millions will be immunised by spring”.
In other developments:
– Boris Johnson was accused of hypocrisy after reports that he went cycling at the Olympic Park in east London on Sunday – seven miles from his home – after imposing sweeping Covid restrictions on others.
– Two women who received £200 fixed penalty notices after travelling to a reservoir for a walk around five miles from their homes have had their fines rescinded, Derbyshire Police said.
– Tory lockdown sceptics gave the Prime Minister a March 8 target to start easing coronavirus curbs.
– Downing Street was unable to say whether sitting on a park bench is against the lockdown rules.
– The biggest increases in Covid-19 case rates are now happening outside the south and east of England, analysis by the PA news agency shows. The Liverpool City Region and parts of the West Midlands have seen particularly sharp rises.
– Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested that police officers, teachers and other critical workers will be in the “highest category of phase two” of the vaccine rollout.
– Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the “over-riding message” was Scotland was now in the “most perilous and serious position since the start of the pandemic”.
Earlier, Boris Johnson warned that tougher lockdown measures may be needed as he stressed “now is the moment for maximum vigilance”.
It comes amid increasing calls for tougher lockdown restrictions – including from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – as case rates soar in several parts of the country.
During a visit to a vaccine centre in Ashton Gate Stadium, Bristol, the Prime Minister said: “We’re going to keep the rules under constant review. Where we have to tighten them, we will.
“We have rules in place already which, if they are properly followed, we believe can make a huge, huge difference.
“It’s now that people need to focus… when they’re out shopping, whether they’re buying cups of coffee in the park or whatever it happens to be, they need to think about spreading the disease.”
Mr Johnson said that “more important than us just pushing out new rules”, people should follow existing guidance.
“Of course, if we feel that things are not being properly observed then we may have to do more,” he added.