Further coronavirus restrictions for some parts of England are expected to be announced by the Health Secretary in a bid to help tackle the spread of the disease which has led to “significant pressure” on the NHS.
Matt Hancock confirmed that “further action” will have to be taken as cases of the virus continue to rise.
The number of lab-confirmed cases recorded in a single day in the UK hit a new record on Tuesday, rising above 50,000 for the first time, to 53,135.
It comes as hospitals in England struggle under the strain of dealing with a higher number of Covid-19 patients than ever during the pandemic, surpassing the first wave peak that was seen in April.
Asked if he is going to extend tiers in his announcement on Wednesday, Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: “Yes, I’m going to set out the details of that to the House of Commons this afternoon.
“It is clear, as we’ve seen from the data in the last few days, that the number of infections is going up.
“That’s unfortunately not just happening in London and the South East as it was in the last few weeks, but it’s starting to happen also elsewhere in the country.”
He said tiering decisions are not taken lightly, but added: “With this new variant growing rapidly – and it’s now the majority of new cases – it is very important that we keep people safe and that we protect the NHS which, as you know, is under significant pressure.”
Mr Hancock told Sky News the NHS is facing “a very significant challenge” and added: “We are going to have to take further action.”
He said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will also be making a statement later on Wednesday about the return of schools in England in January.
Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the priority is to “protect education as much as possible”.
He added: “But the new variant does make it much easier for this disease to transmit. So we are going to protect education as much as we can.”
Medics have been describing the pressure felt on the front line, with one junior doctor telling the PA news agency his London hospital is “aggressively overstretched” and that he expects the situation to worsen.
The doctor, who works in general medicine and wished to remain anonymous, said if the volume of Covid patients continues to increase, his hospital will need to start rationing oxygen – which he expects it will.
It came as local authorities in Essex declared a “major incident” as the number of coronavirus cases threatens to overwhelm health services in the county.
The announcement was made in response to a “significant growing demand” on hospitals across the county and to enable local leaders to seek further support from the Government, the Essex Resilience Forum (ERF) said.
Areas of concern include critical care and bed capacity, staff sickness, and the ability to discharge patients quickly into safe environments.
As you may have heard, we declared an internal incident at QEH as a precautionary measure. All patients continue to receive the care they need, including oxygen therapy as required. We continue to monitor the situation to ensure this remains the case. https://t.co/YkELE6AnJw
— Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust (@LG_NHS) December 28, 2020
On Sunday, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH), part of the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, declared an “internal incident” which it said was taken “as a precautionary step due to the high number of Covid-positive patients” at the hospital.
The trust said all patients received the treatment they needed, including intensive care treatment for Covid-19 and oxygen therapy as required, and added that it is “continuing to monitor the situation to ensure that this remains the case”.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the virus outbreak this year has “really highlighted what happens when you go into a pandemic with tens and thousands of nurses short”.
She told BBC Breakfast: “We know that critical care bed occupancy is high and in some parts of the country we know that we don’t have enough staff to deliver the care, and actually we can’t even expand the bed occupancy because we can’t have enough staff to deliver care, even if we could expand it.”