Britain’s hospitals are on the brink of being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and the country’s National Health Service is facing its “worst crisis in living memory,” a senior government official warned Sunday.
The blunt warning from England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, came as members of the government’s main advisory panel, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, warned that nationwide lockdown measures introduced after Christmas were too lax and, being flouted too often by people meeting friends in parks and congregating at supermarkets.
They are urging the closure of nurseries and the end of “support bubbles” that allow for two households to mix. Ministers say they are not planning to tighten up the measures more but will start enforcing lockdown rules strictly and have ordered police to be forward-leaning and issue fines.
“Strong enforcement” of coronavirus restrictions is needed, the country’s Home secretary, Priti Patel, said Sunday. Patel said she is instructing police forces to focus their resources and personnel on people who “are clearly breaking” lockdown rules to “safeguard our country's recovery from this deadly virus.” The coronavirus causes the COVID-19 illness.
In his stark description of the desperate place in which the NHS has found itself, Whitty warned hospitals will have to start turning away non-COVID emergency patients, if the number of coronavirus patients doesn’t begin to drop. “Everyone who meets friends and family unnecessarily is a link in a chain that threatens vulnerable people,” he said.
The NHS risked being overwhelmed within a couple of weeks, he said, and in some areas was facing “the most dangerous situation anyone can remember.” He added, “Hospitals won’t have room to take redirected emergency cases... staff-to-patient ratios, which are already stretched, will become unacceptable even in places like intensive care. There will be avoidable deaths.”
Some medical workers say the breaking point has already been reached in London and parts of southern England. British coronavirus deaths Sunday surpassed 80,000 for the pandemic, 10,000 more than the civilian death tally during World War II. The country has seen four consecutive daily increases of more than 1,000 deaths.
Dr. Zudin Puthucheary, a critical care consultant, told Sky News the NHS is “breaking in front of us.” He said he was “scared and angry.”
The majority of hospitals in Britain’s capital have already reportedly reached over-capacity.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, declared Friday a “major incident.” In a statement, he said, “The threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point. The number of cases in London has increased rapidly with more than a third more patients being treated in our hospitals now compared to the peak of the pandemic last April,” he added.
Puthucheary, who works at the Royal London Hospital, said there’s a shortage of critical care nursing staff and warned intensive care units “are full beyond bursting.” He also said, “We've cannibalized staff from all around the hospital — volunteers are pouring in to try and look after these patients and deliver the best care we can. Staff are breaking themselves to make this happen and keep our patients safe — and it's not going to be enough.”
Speaking on the BBC, Health Secretary Matt Hancock declined to speculate on whether the government would introduce stricter rules “because the most important message is not whether the government will further strengthen the rules. The most important thing is that people stay at home and follow the rules that we have got.”
Almost 60,000 new coronavirus cases were reported in Britain Saturday.
Ministers say they are in a vaccine race against the virus and plan to open seven mass vaccination centers this week, with more in the pipeline. Neil Ferguson, a government adviser and professor at London’s Imperial College, predicted the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 would soar by another 20 percent. “It will be quite difficult to avoid another 20,000 deaths,” he told reporters.
But with one in 30 Britons having the virus, he said the country could be through the pandemic within nine months, as a consequence of the vaccination program and the development of herd immunity. “I think we will see growth rates slow,” Ferguson said. “We may see a decline, and that may be slightly aided by the fact that there is quite a lot of herd immunity in places like London,” he added.
Paramedics are also reporting they are being forced to treat patients in ambulances for hours at a time because no beds are available. Many hospital managers have ordered staff not to speak to the media unless they have prior clearance to do so and unlike last year, television crews are finding it hard to get permission to film wards.
Some doctors have written anonymously of their experiences in hospitals and paint a grim picture of patients being treated in corridors because intensive care units (ICU) are full.
“We have several patients who are not ‘fit’ for ICU in the current climate,” wrote one consultant for the new site Unherd.com. “Before COVID, they most likely would have been given a chance, but not now. When we think that these patients have suffered enough, and are unlikely to ever recover, we start talking about making them comfortable. It’s partly that we need the beds for patients with a better chance, and partly that we feel it is cruel to keep these people suffering when their chances of survival are slim. It’s difficult to work out which of those is your true motivation.”
Governments across Europe say their hospitals are also stretched, especially in Sweden. And they’re watching with rising anxiety developments in Britain, where transmission rates are being driven by a more contagious mutant strain that’s now being identified across the continent.
Spain’s health minister, Salvador Illa, warned at a press conference Friday the country faces “difficult weeks ahead.” With coronavirus cases surging, he warned, “The data is bad. The incidence rate, the pressure on hospitals, the positivity rate of PCR tests and the number of deaths are rising. The evolution of the pandemic is worsening.”
The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are considered the most reliable in detecting the coronavirus.