Parts of the NHS may be overwhelmed in the coming weeks, Boris Johnson has admitted for the first time as he insisted England can “ride out” its biggest ever Covid wave “without shutting down our country once again”.
The prime minister acknowledged the health service is under huge pressure after four more NHS trusts – all outside London – declared critical incidents amid rising staff absences and Covid patients. On Tuesday evening hospitals across Greater Manchester announced some non-urgent surgery and appointments would be suspended.
Heart attack patients calling 999 in parts of northern England were also asked to get a lift instead of waiting for an ambulance as hospitals in the region experienced more than double the growth rate in numbers of Covid patients compared with London, which was previously worst hit by the Omicron variant surge.
With frontline worker absences fuelled by a record 218,000 new confirmed UK cases of Covid on Tuesday, Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical adviser, said the NHS faced “very substantial pressure over the next couple of weeks” – though there was not yet a “surge in mortality” seen with other waves by this stage.
Johnson claimed the vaccine programme and reduced chance of hospitalisation with Omicron meant there was now a chance for the country to get through the wave without imposing new restrictions.
To reduce disruption from staff off sick or isolating with Covid, he unveiled a plan for 100,000 critical workers to get tests on every working day to detect cases quickly and prevent them spreading, although some experts raised concerns that was not enough.
It was reported last night that health officials were also looking at relaxing rules around PCR tests. People who have asymptomatic infections will no longer need to take a follow-up test after a positive lateral flow test, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Previously, Johnson has said he would bring in further restrictions if there was a risk of the NHS becoming overwhelmed. However, the prime minister accepted it may already be happening in some areas when asked for a definition of this, given many medical staff feel that situation has already been reached.
“The NHS is under huge pressure,” he told a Downing Street press conference. “I won’t provide a definition of what being overwhelmed would constitute because I think that different trusts and different places, at different moments, will feel at least temporarily overwhelmed.
Johnson said the country had a chance to “ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again”. He said hospitals were “at the moment … sending out signals saying that they are feeling the pressure hugely and there will be a difficult period for our wonderful NHS for the next few weeks because of Omicron … I just think we have to get through it as best as we possibly can.”
In a further sign of the intense strain on hospitals, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority said that the region’s 17 hospitals “have made the difficult decision to pause some non-urgent surgery and appointments due to the rising impact of Covid”. However, surgery for cancer, heart conditions, vascular problems and organ transplantation will still go ahead, it pledged.
Medics and scientists have been pressing Johnson for weeks to bring in restrictions beyond the advice for people to work from home and requirement for masks in shops and on public transport, with tougher measures already in force in Scotland and Wales. But the prime minister would find it very difficult to get support for further measures in England from Tory backbenchers, scores of whom voted against current plan B restrictions before Christmas.
Johnson did not rule out further measures to tackle Covid transmission but said the current plan was to “keep our schools and our businesses open, and we can find a way to live with this virus”.
Health leaders reacted with concern, saying Johnson had not acknowledged the depths of the NHS’s problems despite unprecedented pressure in some areas. Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said nursing staff will have “watched the prime minister’s statement in disbelief”. “One described to me today that the NHS feels more broken than she’s ever known it. This is not hysteria, this is blowing the whistle on falling standards as patient care comes under real threat,” she said.
“Vaccinations alone will not reduce infections and hospitalisations – more must be done to prioritise nursing staff for access to testing and high-quality PPE. Meanwhile, the emphasis on virtual and temporary beds shows that the government still fails to recognise the value of highly skilled nursing staff or grasp the extent of the workforce crisis.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the attempt to reassure the public that the NHS is not being overwhelmed “does not chime with the experience of staff up and down the country who are facing fast-rising hospital admissions, intense pressures on all parts of the health and care system and widespread staff absence”.
“We urge the government not to allow its optimism to lead to complacency given the rapidly changing situation we are seeing on a daily basis,” added Taylor. He welcomed the plan for daily rapid testing of key workers but said it should have been made available earlier in the pandemic.
The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, urged Johnson to impose new restrictions to help relieve the pressure.
“The facts, figures and the living reality for thousands of patients and NHS staff daily demonstrate undoubtedly that the NHS is currently already overwhelmed,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council. “Asking the NHS to ‘just get through it’, without doing anything to help, would be to wrongly accept avoidable suffering to thousands of patients in the coming weeks.”
Johnson was flanked by Whitty and Prof Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, as he outlined the approach for England. Vallance said there were “extraordinarily high levels of infection at the moment” in the UK. Hospital pressures would depend on how Omicron had an effect on the older generation, he said.
Whitty acknowledged that “some hospitals, some areas of the country” will come under “very substantial pressure over the next couple of weeks” with high numbers of staff isolating over infections compounding the typical winter pressures.
He also spoke of being left “saddened” by the proportion of unvaccinated patients in intensive care, as he urged people to get their boosters.