The NHS is facing the most dangerous moment in its history with the situation likely to get worse, England’s chief medical officer has warned.
Professor Chris Whitty said the coming weeks would be the most critical point of the pandemic, with the number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals reaching 32,294 – more than double the total at the peak of the first wave.
The pressure on trusts is so great that doctors have been forced to downgrade their oxygen blood saturation targets due to a shortage of supplies, it has emerged.
Meanwhile, students have been deployed onto wards to plug staffing gaps.
The unprecedented strain on the NHS comes as the roll-out of the vaccine is ramped up with the opening of seven mass vaccination centres.
However, Prof Whitty said the benefit of the jabs would not come soon enough to ease the current crisis in hospitals.
"The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS," he told BBC Breakfast. "This is everybody’s problem. This new variant is really pushing things in a way that the old variant, which was already very bad, was not able to.
"So we have a very significant problem… this is a serious problem, and it is rising in every part of England."
Covid fills hospital beds
More than 24,000 patients with Covid-19 have been admitted to hospitals across the UK in the last seven days alone, NHS data shows.
The rates are driven by high levels of infection, with 54,940 new cases announced on Sunday, the 13th day in a row on which they have been above 50,000.
Prof Whitty described the UK death toll of more than 82,600 people from Covid-19 as "shocking" and said: "I think anybody who is not shocked by the number of people in hospitals who are seriously ill at the moment, and who are dying over the course of this pandemic, I think has not understood this at all.
"This is an appalling situation. We are now very close to the point, with vaccination, that we’re going to be able to get on top of this, but it’s not yet.
"And what we really have to do if we want the numbers not to go up still further is that everybody has to minimise the number of unnecessary contacts they have in their day."
His comments came as it emerged that a hospital’s oxygen supply has "reached a critical situation" due to rising numbers of Covid-19 patients.
Southend Hospital has instructed staff to downgrade targets for oxygen saturation
Credit: John Sibley/Reuters
A document reveals that Southend Hospital has instructed staff to downgrade targets for oxygen saturation, a key measure of fundamental health, for patients from 92 per cent to a baseline of 88 per cent to 92 per cent.
"It is imperative we use oxygen safely and efficiently," the document says. "Patients with a saturation above 92 per cent which are on oxygen should have their oxygen weaned within the target range."
There are currently 2,860 patients on ventilation in England.
It also emerged on Monday that a trust in the Midlands has deployed medical trainees on its wards in a bid to maintain staff levels.
The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust made the move after its international recruitment plans were "blown out of the water" by the recent travel bans introduced after the proliferation of the new Covid variant, Health Service Journal reported.