People are being warned not to add “fuel to the fire” as coronavirus cases rise across England and hospitals strain under the pressure of high numbers of Covid-19 patients.
Rates of infection are continuing to rise in all regions of the country, according to the latest weekly surveillance report from Public Health England.
It comes as the number of people testing positive for the virus in England also reached a new record high, with a total of 232,169 in the week to December 23 – the highest weekly total since Test and Trace was launched in May.
Intensive care doctor Professor Hugh Montgomery warned people who do not wear masks and continue to mix unnecessarily have “blood on their hands”.
He said anyone who thinks it is acceptable to have “one more night out” is spreading the virus.
He told BBC Radio Five Live: “Anyone who’s listening to this who doesn’t wear their mask and behaves like this – they have blood on their hands, they are spreading this virus. Other people will spread it and people will die.
“They won’t know they’ve killed people but they have.”
Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle urged people not to mix this New Year’s Eve and to keep to the social distancing and hygiene rules in a bid to stop the spread.
Commenting on our most recent #COVID19 surveillance report, our medical director, Dr Yvonne Doyle says: "The Christmas week saw a worrying rise in cases across every region of the country… We must not now add fuel to the fire…"
— Public Health England (@PHE_uk) December 31, 2020
She said: “The Christmas week saw a worrying rise in cases across every region of the country, particularly among adults in their 20s and 30s.
“We must not now add further fuel to the fire, as meeting in close and large groups this New Year’s Eve risks further transmission.”
Prof Montgomery said the consequences of “bad behaviour” over Christmas will not be seen in intensive care units until next week, and the results of any similar actions by people on New Year’s Eve will be felt in hospitals about 10 days later.
Millions of people across England are ending the year under the toughest coronavirus restrictions, with more than three-quarters of the country’s population ordered to stay at home, as swathes of the country were plunged into Tier 4 overnight.
The new restrictions mean a total of 44 million people, or 78% of the population of England, are now in Tier 4, where non-essential shops, as well as gyms, cinemas, casinos and hairdressers, have to stay shut.
Trusts continue to face pressure, with Covid patient numbers in England having surpassed the April first-wave peak.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the military is standing by to staff Nightingale hospitals if the NHS exceeds its capacity of critical care beds.
A spokesman for the NHS said the Nightingale sites across England “are being readied to admit patients once again should they be needed”, and that hospitals in London are coming under significant pressure from high infection rates.
He said: “In anticipation of pressures rising from the spread of the new variant infection, NHS London were asked to ensure the London Nightingale was reactivated and ready to admit patients as needed, and that process is under way.”
Speaking to Times Radio, Mr Wallace said: “We are on, I think, 17,000 ventilator beds currently being used, of a capacity of 21,000.
“If it starts to tip over there, then of course you’ll see those Nightingales being more active and, yes, we have a number of medical staff.”
He said the Army currently has 5,000 personnel deployed in the Covid-19 response.
It was disclosed on Wednesday that Buckinghamshire had followed Essex by declaring a major incident amid fears that rising numbers of Covid-19 patients could overwhelm health services.
Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin requested armed forces assistance for Essex in the Commons on Wednesday after local authorities asked for help to increase hospital capacity, over fears about critical care and bed capacity, staff sickness and the ability to discharge patients quickly into safe environments.
It is understood the request for help has been received by the Ministry of Defence but that alternative options with local health partners are still being considered.
Union leaders are warning that health workers face burnout, soaring sickness levels and “intolerable” pressures because of the ongoing crisis.
A day after the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was announced, in what was hailed as a “game changer” moment, Mr Wallace said up to 250 teams of combat medics could be made available to help deliver the rollout across the country.
With 22,713 Covid-19 patients in hospitals in England as of 8am on Wednesday – higher than the first-wave peak – NHS Providers said pressure on hospitals is “intensifying”.
Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said: “We know Covid-19 cases are rising sharply, with the new variant making a big impact, so more demand for treatment is ‘baked in’.
“We are in for a very difficult new year.”
Thank you to all the scientists and volunteers who helped make this fantastic achievement possible. pic.twitter.com/1g2mslFhpK
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 30, 2020
London’s rate of new cases stood at 735.5 per 100,000 people in the seven days to December 27, up from 711.9 in the previous week, according to Public Health England.
Eastern England saw the second highest rate, followed by south-east England, while Yorkshire and the Humber had the lowest rate at 188.3.
Case rates in England remain highest among 30 to 39-year-olds, Public Health England said.
Public Health England’s figures show that rates fell slightly among five to nine-year-olds, 10 to 19-year-olds and people aged 80 and over.
The lowest rates were recorded among those aged four and under (150.6) and five to nine (167.2).
The reopening of secondary schools in England has been delayed until later in January, and in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19, primary school pupils will also not return to their desks as planned next week.
Universities are being asked to reduce the number of students returning to campus from the beginning of next month, and those who do return should be offered two rapid coronavirus tests.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Government is “working as hard and as fast as we can” to get supplies of the newly-approved vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca to people, with the rollout due to begin on Monday.
Meanwhile, GPs are being offered £10 for every care home resident they vaccinate in a drive by NHS England to reach the majority of those deemed top priority by the end of January.
Latest figures show 786,000 people have received a Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 jab between December 8 and Sunday December 27, NHS England said.
GP leaders have criticised a decision to delay giving the second dose of Covid-19 vaccines – following the announcement of a new dosing regimen – saying the move will cause huge problems for thousands of partially-vaccinated elderly and vulnerable people.