he NHS in England will move to its highest level of emergency alert at midnight tonight as concerns mount over it running out of beds to treat Covid-19 patients.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, announced at midday today that it would return to “level 4” alert – its highest level of emergency preparedness.
It comes as the NHS’s top doctor Professor Steve Powis indicated that the NHS had just 9,000 covid beds left – and that the 5,000 “surge” capacity of the Nightingale hospitals would have to be brought back on stream unless infections stopped rising.
Announcing the increase in alert level at a virtual press conference at University College London hospital, Sir Simon said: “This is not a situation anybody would like to find themselves in… the worst pandemic in a century.”
NHS chiefs now fear a knock-on impact on non-covid hospital care, though a national postponement of elective surgery is not being implemented at this stage. Local restrictions in hotspot areas in the North West and Midlands are already in place, however.
Sir Simon said: “The truth, unfortunately, is that if coronavirus takes off again, that will disrupt services.”
He said failing to adopt a system-wide approach to halting the spread of covid and just leaving it to intensive care doctors to try to save people was like “taking the rest of the team off the pitch and just leaving the goalkeeper”.
Prof Powis said there were currently 11,000 covid patients in NHS hospitals – compared with fewer than 500 at the end of August and 2,000 at the end of September.
Health chiefs know that there is a lag of seven to 10 days from people catching Covid-19 to ending up in hospital if they become seriously unwell – meaning that increasing hospital admissions are already “baked in” over the next fortnight.
Professor Powis showed a graph based on modelling by the SPI-M group of Government scientific experts which showed several possibilities of inpatient numbers rising from 11,000 to the 20,000 capacity.
He said that the Nightingale hospital in Manchester had already been brought back into use.
At the peak of the first wave, there were 19,000 covid inpatients in English NHS hospitals.
Hopes were raised today about a vaccine being available by Christmas but Sir Simon said his “central expectation” remained the first half of next year.
However, GPs were being asked to prepare to administer the first available doses to people aged 85 in care homes, and the Nightingale hospitals would be used as large vaccination centres for other priority groups, such as frontline health and care staff.
Separate data from the King’s College London Zoe Covid tracker app today suggested that infections in the community were in fact falling off – even in advance of the lockdown starting tomorrow.
Professor Tim Spector, who runs the Zoe app, tweeted: “Further evidence today from our Zoe CSS survey that we have passed the peak in second wave new cases in the U.K. there will be a four week lag before this is seen in a decline in deaths and 1-2 weeks in hospitalisation. R value close to one in most areas now.”