The UK is in a race to outpace a deadly coronavirus surge, data analysis by the Financial Times suggests, as it rushes to expand its mass Covid-19 vaccination programme.
With admissions to hospital from Covid-19 reaching heights not seen since April, hundreds of additional vaccination sites are due to be rolled out this week following approval of the easy-to-store Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
London and the south east are particular hotspots, but as our charts show, no English region is escaping the escalating crisis as the new, more infectious coronavirus variant identified in Britain last month cuts a swath through the nation.
Case and positivity rates shot up over the Christmas period.
In London, 16 per cent of those tested on December 22 received a positive result, a proportion not seen since late April.
According to data published on Sunday afternoon, that figure has surged to 27 per cent, a level last seen in the middle of the spring wave when tests were only being carried out in hospital.
The test positivity rate has climbed to 18 per cent in the east and south-east of England, but the sharp late December increase is not only a southern phenomenon, with rates now into the double digits in all English regions.
The increasing caseload is adding to the pressure on hospitals, with daily admissions of Covid-19 patients now above the spring peak in the south-east, south-west and east of England, and on the brink of passing that high water mark in London.
Covid-19 patients now occupy more than half of all available beds in adult wards in several hospitals in the south of England.
In the North Middlesex hospital in outer London, Covid-19 patients occupied 63 per cent of available beds on December 29. The hospital had 26 new Covid-19 admissions a day in the last week of December, rapidly filling the 401 beds it has at its disposal in adult wards.
On December 21 the hospital announced it had “taken the very difficult decision to stop all non-emergency activity on a temporary basis”. It said “time critical” cancer treatment and diagnostic procedures would continue however.
London hospital leaders believe admissions may reach a peak in the week beginning January 11.
Daily deaths, which tend to occur several weeks after infection, rose through most of November and December and are now on a clear upward trajectory.
Across the UK more than 500 Covid-19 deaths occurred on each of the past six days for which data is available, a grim milestone not seen since April.
Delays in death registration mean these numbers will be adjusted upward retrospectively.
The NHS has been coping with a severe treatment backlog following the decision to cancel all routine surgery from mid-April to create space for Covid-19 patients.
Since September hospitals have been under pressure from health service leaders to restore services to up to 90 per cent of previous levels. But progress made in recent months may slow as the hardest-hit hospitals are once again forced to cancel operations to cope with the onslaught of Covid-19 patients.
Over the weekend, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, warned that the next two to three weeks were critical, particularly for regions that had been coping with high case numbers for months.
In a series of tweets, he said trusts in London and the south east were “under huge pressure in meeting demands from [the] new variant”. However they had started with very few Covid-19 inpatients whereas trusts in the north and midlands “still have many Covid inpatients from [the] Autumn second surge so [are] at real risk if they see similar increases,” he warned.
Alison Pittard, dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine which speaks for critical care doctors nationwide, said the NHS wanted and hoped to continue its regular work alongside Covid-19 treatment. “We plan to continue as much normal activity as possible but of course some of the non-urgent stuff will need to be postponed,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
Dr Pittard made clear that the availability of staff was a key constraint, including when considering whether to press into service more of England’s pop-up Nightingale hospitals, erected in April to care for overflow demand but in many cases little used in the first wave.
“We can’t just create staff overnight,” she said. “We can get more drugs, we can get more beds and more equipment but we can’t just get more staff.”