NHS workers are “back in the eye of the storm”, the chief executive of NHS England has said, as figures for new coronavirus cases and patients in hospital hit record highs.
In a new year message recorded at a vaccination centre, Sir Simon Stevens paid tribute to those on the frontline including doctors, nurses, therapists, as well as cleaners and non-medical staff such as carers, volunteers and care home workers.
On Monday Dr Yvonne Doyle, the medical director of Public Health England, warned that hospitals face “unprecedented” levels of coronavirus infections, after the UK reported 41,385 new lab-confirmed cases on Monday, its highest figure yet for a single day and the first above 40,000.
Doyle said: “This very high level of infection is of growing concern at a time when our hospitals are at their most vulnerable, with new admissions rising in many regions.”
NHS England said it now has more Covid-19 patients in hospital than at the peak of the first wave – 20,426 as of 8am on Monday, surpassing April’s high of 18,946 on 12 April. Health officials in Wales and Scotland have also said they fear becoming overwhelmed.
The government said a further 357 people had died across the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday, bringing the UK total to 71,109.
Separate figures for cases where the virus has been mentioned on the death certificate, with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, showed there have now been 87,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
The true figures for deaths and cases are likely to be higher as Scotland is not releasing death data between 24 and 28 December, and Northern Ireland is not providing case or death data over the same period.
Doyle added that “despite unprecedented levels of infection”, the vaccine offered hope on the horizon. She urged members of the public to “continue to play our part in stopping the spread of the virus” as the Pfizer/BioNTech jab is rolled out.
Stevens said Covid-19 meant 2020 had “probably been the toughest year most of us can remember”.
“That is certainly true across the health service where we have been responding to the worst pandemic in a century,” he said. He added that the immunisation programme, the biggest in the health service’s history, was a source of greater hope for the year ahead.
“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.
“And now again we are back in the eye of the storm with a second wave of coronavirus sweeping Europe and, indeed, this country.”
But the pandemic had shown that “sometimes the worst of circumstances bring out the best in people”, he added.
“We have certainly seen that in my colleagues across the health service – the fantastic intensive care nurses and doctors, the paramedics, the therapists, the porters, the cleaners, the entire team across the National Health Service who have so brilliantly looked after 200,000 severely ill coronavirus patients and many others with all the other conditions the health service is here to care for,” he said.
“As they have done so, that has been boosted by the superb work of neighbours and volunteers and carers and care home staff – and quietly, at the same time, the advances we continue to see in medical science.”
Hospitals are under mounting pressure. Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said that a lot of hospitals and paramedics were seeing an “incredibly busy period” and “really feeling that demand”. She put this down to the new Covid variant, “which is spreading more quickly”, but also the huge number of staff absences.
“In some places they are seeing more than double normal levels of staff absence and they don’t have the temporary staff in sufficient numbers to compensate for it,” she said.
She added that she was worried the bad weather would bring further difficulties to ailing trusts. “Chief executives are now dealing with snow as well as other things … so you have rising Covid staff absences and then staff not able to get to work due to snow. That is really difficult.” She said it would be a “very tough month” ahead.
The NHS is preparing to expand Covid vaccination in January as additional supply becomes available. Stevens said advances in medical science had “quietly” continued during 2020, with new treatments for cystic fibrosis and cancer as well as the first treatment for Covid, which was developed through research in the NHS.
He said the “biggest breakthrough” was vaccines for coronavirus, which the NHS was the first health service in the world to deliver outside of a trial.
“That, perhaps, provides the biggest chink of hope for the year ahead,” he said. “But that will only be possible thanks once again to the dedication and the commitment of countless NHS staff – our brilliant GPs, pharmacists, nurses and many many others.
“Therefore now is the right time, I believe, on behalf of the whole country to record our enormous debt of gratitude and our huge thanks.”