London hospitals are diverting ambulances and declaring ‘major incidents’ over oxygen shortages, as coronavirus infections surge in England

A sign is seen at the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test centre at Stanley Park, near Anfield, on the first day of a newly imposed lockdown, in Liverpool, Britain, November 5, 2020
A sign is seen at a coronavirus test center at Stanley Park near Anfield, Liverpool.
  • Doctors in England have warned that National Health Service staff at "breaking point," and hospitals are running out of oxygen.
  • It comes amid an alarming new surge in COVID-19 patients across the country, with scientists warning that a new, possibly more infectious coronavirus variant is responsible for a steep rise in infections.
  • There are now more COVID-19 patients in hospital than at any other point in the pandemic, and the London Ambulance Service said that December 26 was one of its "busiest ever" days.
  • A hospital in south London was forced to declare an "internal incident" over the weekend over the strain on services.
  • Some facilities in the city have also been forced to divert ambulances amid concerns over oxygen supply, according to the Independent.
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Doctors in England are warning that National Health Service staff are at "breaking point," and hospitals are running out of oxygen amid an alarming new surge in COVID-19 patients across the country.

Official NHS figures show that there are now more patients with COVID-19 in hospital than there were at the previous peak in the spring, while the London Ambulance Service said Boxing Day was one of its "busiest ever" days.

The UK's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said in a December 19 statement that a new more infectious variant of the coronavirus could be partly responsible for a recent rise in infections.

The number of daily cases recorded in the UK rose to its highest ever on Monday with 40,000 new confirmed cases, according to government figures.

Increased household mixing over Christmas has also prompted concerns that the situation could become even worse in January.

According to the Independent, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in London - where the new coronavirus variant is particularly prevalent - was forced to divert ambulances to other hospitals amid concerns about its oxygen supply.

Patients with severe cases of COVID-19 are often placed on ventilation machines which require oxygen.

The hospital is part of the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, which in a statement said it had declared an internal incident on Sunday as a "precautionary measure."

Ambulances were asked to take emergency patients to nearby hospitals because the number of COVID-19 patients meant there was more demand for oxygen pipes than there was supply, according to the Independent.

Several other hospitals in London had also been forced to declare major incidents this past week, the outlet added.

'Breaking point'

Dr. Samantha Batt-Rawden, a senior intensive care registrar and president of the Doctors' Association UK - an association representing over 46,000 NHS doctors - said this week that NHS staff were at "breaking point," partly because so many had become ill since the new coronavirus variant emerged.

"We are incredibly thin on the ground," Batt-Rawden tweeted. "NHS staff have not been prioritised for the vaccine and are going off sick in droves with the new strain."

Batt-Rawden also shared a now-deleted post from an NHS board in Wales asking for medical students to provide support with proning COVID-19 patients, a treatment by which patients are laid on their fronts for an extended period.

Figures published by NHS England show that there were 20,426 confirmed COVID-19 patients in English hospitals as of 8 a.m. on December 28. That figure was higher for the first time than the previous peak in April of 18,974.

uk coronavirus patients in hospital
Graph showing the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospitals in the UK as of December 19, 2020.

Those figures appear likely to rise dramatically as the new variant spreads through England.

Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious-diseases expert who advises the UK government on COVID-19, said the government needed to introduce further restrictions on social mixing to avoid "catastrophe" in the new year.

"We're going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February," Hayward told the BBC on Tuesday. The comments were cited by Reuters.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, a separate group which advises the government on its coronavirus response, has told Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shut schools in January to prevent an even more severe rise in coronavirus infections in January, according to Politico.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, on Monday said he was "confident" that there would be a "staggered" return to secondary schools as planned.

"We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it," he told BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme.

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