New Covid-19 Strain Puts Growing Pressure on U.K. Hospitals

A surge in the number of Covid-19 patients in the U.K. risks overwhelming the country’s hospitals as a new and more transmissible strain infects the population at a record pace.

There were 20,426 coronavirus patients being treated in England’s hospitals as of early Monday, already exceeding the peak recorded in April during the first wave of the pandemic, according to the most recent figures from the National Health Service. New cases in Britain reached a record 53,135 on Tuesday, and the country’s total of more than 71,000 Covid-19 deaths makes it one of the worst affected in the world.

Requests have been made to transfer patients out of London to other counties as hospitalization rates in the capital breach capacity, the Health Service Journal reported this week, citing sources in intensive care units. It said ICU capacity stood at more than 110% in London and southeast England as of Monday, and at 100% in the east of England.

Simon Walsh, an emergency doctor in northeast London, told a BBC radio program this week that hospitals are contending with “queues of ambulances outside many emergency departments” and considering a system of triage tents typically reserved for incidents such as terror attacks.

“Things are really, really, really bad,” Samantha Batt-Rawden, an NHS critical care doctor and president of Doctors’ Association UK, said on the Good Morning Britain program Wednesday. She said hospital wards were being turned into temporary ICUs and that operations have had to be canceled.

Other medical staff have reported becoming increasingly exhausted.

There is “significant absenteeism through our doctors and nurses having caught Covid or being exposed to Covid,” said Helena McKeown, a doctor and chair of the representative body of the British Medical Association.

She said news on Wednesday of AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine winning U.K. clearance “couldn’t have come a minute sooner,” adding that she hoped a “significant number” of health-care workers will be vaccinated with the first dose by the end of January.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned on Wednesday that the NHS is “under pressure” and urged the public to take steps to protect hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

New Covid-19 Strain Puts Growing Pressure on U.K. Hospitals

In a round of broadcast interviews, Hancock said residents of London and the nearby counties of Essex and Kent should behave as if they have the virus and stay at home. The emergency facilities known as Nightingale hospitals that the government set up earlier this year to handle overflow are ready to be used if needed, Hancock said.

About half of the U.K. population is currently living under Tier 4 restrictions that include non-essential shops being shut along with gyms and swimming pools, as well as a ban on indoor socializing, and restaurants and pubs only offering takeout. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is scheduled to hold a press conference at 5 p.m., where he may provide an update on the restrictions.

NHS Chief Executive Officer Simon Stevens said in a televised message to medical staff that the health service was “back in the eye of the storm.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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