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Covid-19 – The NHS could be ‘overwhelmed’ with no action

By Ella Pickover, PA Health Correspondent
·5-min read

The England lockdown is aimed at preventing the “medical and moral disaster” of the NHS being overwhelmed, Boris Johnson said.

The Prime Minister said there was a risk that, without action, “for the first time in our lives, the NHS will not be there for us and our families”.

He further warned:

– Some hospitals could run out of capacity “in a matter of weeks”.

– Millions of patients with other medical needs could be denied care.

– Thousands could die from Covid-19 every day.

– Medics would be forced to chose “who would live and who would die”.

– The virus is doubling faster than capacity can be expanded.

Meanwhile, scientists warned the number of deaths in the second peak of the virus had the potential to be “twice as bad, or more” than the first.

It comes after modelling by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), which advises Government scientists, concluded that without further action, the NHS will breach its fixed and surged bed capacity – including beds in Nightingale hospitals – by the first week of December even if planned operations are cancelled.

“Unless we act we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day – a peak of mortality alas bigger than the one we saw in April,” Mr Johnson told the Downing Street press conference.

“Even in the south west where incidence is still is so low, it is now clear that the current projections mean that hospitals in the south west will run out of capacity in just a matter of weeks unless we act.

“Let me explain why the overrunning of the NHS would be a medical and moral disaster beyond the raw loss of life.

“The huge exponential growth in the number of patients – by no means all of them elderly – would mean that doctors and nurses would be forced to chose which patients to treat – who would get oxygen and who wouldn’t, who would live and who would die.

“And doctors and nurses would be forced to chose between Covid patients and non-Covid patients and the sheer weight of Covid demand would mean depriving tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of non-Covid patients of the care they need.”

Coronavirus – Sat Oct 31, 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing (Alberto Pezzali/PA)

He added: “If we let the lines on those graphs grow in the way that they are projected to grow, then the risk is, that for the first time in our lives, the NHS will not be there for us and our families.

“Even if I could double capacity overnight… it still would still not be enough because the virus is doubling faster than we can conceivably add capacity.

“So now is time to take action because there is no alternative.”

The Prime Minister added: “From Thursday, the basic message is the same: Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, added: “If we did not act now, then the chances of the NHS being in extraordinary trouble in December will be very, very high”.

Data presented at the briefing showed that 10 hospitals are already treating more numbers than they were during the peak of the pandemic in April.

Prof Whitty warned that the prevalence of coronavirus has been increasing “extremely rapidly” in recent weeks.

Citing Office for National Statistics data, he said: “The prevalence of this disease has been going up extremely rapidly over the last few weeks, having been very flat due to the work of everybody in the country over spring and summer.

“And we now have around 50,000 new cases a day and that is rising.”

Prof Whitty added that “the death rate, although rising, is still significantly below the peak”.

But chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said if numbers keep rising, “in terms of deaths over the winter, there’s the potential for this to be twice as bad, or more, compared to the first wave”.

More people could be admitted to hospital over the next six weeks than was seen over the first wave, Sir Patrick added.

Projections suggest this would be seen “across the country as a whole” with “some hospitals earlier than others, some a bit later”.

Sir Patrick said the models suggest “increasing deaths over the next six weeks”, with a figure close to the first wave peak by December 8 “if nothing is done”.

“But on the current trajectory that is what is thought to be the prediction for deaths over the next six weeks and of course that would continue to go up because the hospitalisations already exceeded the first wave peak by this time, deaths would follow.

“So unfortunately that’s a very grim picture in terms of what this looks like in the absence of action and continued growth.”

There are now almost 11,000 people in hospitals across the UK – including 978 on ventilators.

A number of hospitals have been forced to postpone some of their other work to cope with the pressures of Covid-19 patients.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “NHS leaders in Covid-19 hotspot areas are telling us they are very concerned about soaring infection rates, with hospitals, mental health services and community services under huge pressure, especially with the prospect of a tough winter on the cards.

“If we are to avoid even more loss of life, people becoming seriously unwell, and significant disruption to the NHS’s broader services, it’s vital that transmission of the virus can be cut and some of that pressure is eased.

“The NHS is not, and has never been, a Covid-only service, so while the infection is spreading, our members are telling us they want to minimise disruption to their non-urgent activity. However, to continue services, they need the public to play their part in following the necessary infection control measures, including in primary and community care, where clinicians continue to provide face-to-face appointments.”

The news comes as the UK recorded more than one million lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus since the start of the outbreak, according to Government data.