Hospitals are full to capacity and ambulance services are buckling under pressure as UK records its highest number of new COVID-19 infections yet

london ambulances
A patient is transported out of an ambulance at The Royal London Hospital on December 30, 2020 in London, England.
  • On Tuesday, the UK reported a record-breaking number of new COVID-19 infections.
  • Public health officials have expressed "extreme concern" about the strain being placed on hospitals.
  • The number of patients in English hospitals is now higher than during the first peak in April.
  • Ambulances have been stacking up outside of hospitals due to the lack of beds available.
  • London hospitals, particularly intensive care units, are overwhelmed, and some hospitals are reporting concerns about dwindling oxygen supplies.
  • Scientists are calling for a total national lockdown but Health Secretary Matt Hancock has delayed a decision.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Hospitals in England face an unprecedented level of demand due to a surge in people seriously ill with COVID-19, amid fears the nation's health service is buckling under the relentless pressure on its resources.

Much of the country remains under restrictive Tier 4 lockdown regulations - an attempt to grapple with the new, possibly more infectious contagious variant, which may be behind the concerning surge in reported cases.

Despite the restrictions, numbers continue to rise and public health officials are becoming increasingly worried.

Susan Hopkin, a senior medical advisor to Public Health England, said on Tuesday: "We are continuing to see unprecedented levels of COVID-19 infection across the UK, which is of extreme concern particularly as our hospitals are at their most vulnerable."

NHS England data has revealed that there were 20,426 patients in its hospitals as of Monday morning. More patients are now in English hospitals than during the peak of the first wave in April.

NHS hospitals are under so much strain that some patients have to be treated in ambulances, according to Sky News.

An unnamed doctor told the broadcaster: "The patients are first being treated by the ambulance staff as they are picked up from their homes. And then when they reach the emergency department, they're waiting in the vans until a bed becomes available."

In recent days, ambulance crews have been waiting up to six hours to hand over patients to hospital staff, according to the BBC.

The shortage of beds in hospitals has resulted in ambulances stacking up outside a number of them.

Footage posted on social media shows fleets of emergency vehicles lined up outside Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital and two London hospitals - Royal London Hospital and Queen's Hospital.

 

In London, the situation is dire. On Boxing Day, the London Ambulance Service (LAS) told ITV News that they'd experienced "one of their busiest days ever."

On Tuesday, many Londoners received a text urging them not to call for an ambulance unless it is an emergency. "London Ambulance Service and our hospitals are extremely busy," the text explained.

 

The extraordinary number of calls to emergency services has forced control room staff to make tough decisions about who gets treated by paramedics. "Our control room staff are having to make incredibly difficult decisions to decide who gets an ambulance first and who they are going to ask to wait," a paramedic told Sky News.

'It is a ticking time bomb'

Inside the UK hospitals, there are also signs of serious strain.

Critical care capacity in London was at 114% on Monday night. Being overcapacity resulted in requests being made to transfer some patients hundreds of miles, from London to Yorkshire, according to the Health Service Journal.

The transfer of patients between struggling hospitals is happening regularly, a senior NHS source told the Independent. "It is a ticking time bomb," they said.

In some cases, the need to transfer patients is the result of dwindling oxygen supplies.

On Tuesday afternoon, London's North Middlesex University Hospital Trust said that the influx of patients "was putting a strain" on oxygen supplies, according to the Independent.

A day earlier, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in London was forced to divert ambulances to other hospitals because of similar oxygen supply concerns. The hospital then declared a "major incident."

A "major incident" has also been declared in Essex.

The chief constable of Essex Police, BJ Harrington, told The Guardian: "Declaring a major incident enables us to seek further support from the Government to address the severe pressures which the health system is under because of Covid-19."

Scientists from the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have called on the UK government to implement an "immediate national lockdown" to help alleviate some of the pressure on hospitals.

Despite this call, Matt Hancock told Good Morning Britain that a national lockdown is not imminent. Instead, the health secretary is expected to announce that more areas will be plunged into Tier 4 lockdown restrictions.

On Tuesday, the UK recorded its highest number of new COVID-19 infections yet. The daily toll of 53,135 new infections trumps the previous 41,385 cases recorded just the day before.

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