LONDON: The UK is "back in the eye of the storm", the head of the NHS said on Tuesday as the country's health chiefs warned that hospitals were being overwhelmed by a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, largely driven by a new highly transmissible variant of coronavirus, which has seen clinic admissions surpass the first peak.
According to the figures from National Health Service (NHS) England, 20,426 patients were being treated in hospitals on Monday, compared to 18,974 recorded on April 12 during the first peak of the pandemic this year.
The surge is largely driven by a new highly transmissible variant of coronavirus, which had led to most of the country being plunged into complete lockdown earlier this month and also several countries cutting transport links with the UK in an effort to try and curb its rapid transmission.
The UK is "back in the eye of the storm," said Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the state-funded NHS. "Now again we are back in the eye of the storm with a second wave of coronavirus sweeping Europe and, indeed, this country. Many of us have lost family, friends, colleagues and - at a time of year when we would normally be celebrating - a lot of people are understandably feeling anxious, frustrated and tired," he said during a visit to NHS vaccination centre.
However, the NHS chief tried to strike a note of optimism as he said that with vaccine supplies continuing to come on stream, things should start turning around by late spring in the New Year. "That perhaps provides the biggest chink of hope for the year ahead," he said.
It comes as the patients who received the first vaccinations three weeks ago will receive their second booster jab of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which also has a tie-up with the Serum Institute of India, is believed to be on the brink of regulatory approval as well with hopes of a rollout by next week.
But, meanwhile, people are being urged to stick to social distancing rules as the deadly virus continues to cause havoc. "Today we learnt that we have more patients with COVID in hospital than ever before in England. This is not a drill. Please believe us," Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, president of the Doctors' Association UK, said on Twitter in a widely shared social media post about the severity of the new pandemic peak and the pressures it is piling on the over-stretched NHS.
"We are incredibly thin on the ground. NHS staff have not been prioritised for the vaccine and are going off sick in droves with the new strain. Trusts are so desperate they are tweeting out for medical students to help in ICU. This was confirmed by a consultant on the ground," she said.
Medical director of Public Health England (PHE) Dr Yvonne Doyle said the "very high level of infection is of growing concern at a time when our hospitals are at their most vulnerable". "We have all made huge sacrifices this year but we must all continue to play our part in stopping the spread of the virus which is still replicating fast," she urged.
Health officials in Wales and Scotland have also said they are similarly at risk of becoming overwhelmed. On Monday, a record 41,385 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the UK, though it is thought the infection rate was higher around March-April when testing was much more limited.
There is growing pressure on ministers to extend the Christmas and New Year holiday break for schools even as UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said he was "confident" the staggered return to secondary schools in England could go ahead as planned.
Members of the armed forces will be on standby to help roll out mass testing at secondary schools and colleges in England from next month, as announced previously. Around 1,500 personnel will give planning support, training and phone advice to English schools needing help with the testing process and setting up facilities.
Each secondary school and college in England will be offered testing, with 78 million pounds allocated to support this, the government has said, adding that schools will be given the kits they need. In most cases, students will be expected to swab themselves under supervision of a school staff member or volunteer who has been trained for the role.
The military support of the programme begins this week and will consist mostly of webinars and meetings, although there will be teams capable of deploying at short notice to provide closer support if needed.