The boss of the NHS in England marked the anniversary of the first confirmed coronavirus patients being treated by paying tribute to the staff’s “extraordinary work in a year like no other”.
Sir Simon Stevens visited the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, where two Chinese nationals were treated after they tested positive.
A woman aged 50 and a 23-year-old student had fallen ill in York, were initially treated in Hull and were transferred to Newcastle in the early hours of January 31 2020.
Since then, hospitals have treated more than 320,000 patients with Covid, with about one person with the virus admitted to critical care every 30 minutes.
Hospitals have been transformed to increase critical care and their “surge capacity” by around half.
In total, 26,476 patients with Covid have needed the most intensive level of care since the first case was diagnosed, the NHS said.
And on the busiest day of the pandemic, on January 23 2021, there were a record 5,381 people receiving critical care – 65% higher than at any point in 2019 and 36% higher than in the first wave.
The NHS has also led the way on administering seven million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine in England.
Sir Simon, NHS England chief executive, said: “On behalf of families and patients across the country, we thank staff across the NHS for their extraordinary work in a year like no other.
“The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest public health emergency in NHS history, but in the past 12 months the NHS has achieved things many would have thought impossible – from quarantine centres and Nightingale hospitals in a matter of days after the pandemic was declared, to expanding hospitals’ critical care capacity by 50%, developing new Covid treatments and services, and delivering the first vaccination outside of a clinical trial.
“It is the vaccination programme, the biggest in NHS history, combined with the prospect of new therapies and treatments that offer us hope for the future.
“Our brilliant NHS staff have been on the frontline of the intense and relentless battle against coronavirus, but no health service could cope with the virus alone.
“They are part of this country’s greatest peacetime mobilisation, so we also thank other key workers, particularly in the care sector, the hundreds of thousands of volunteers, tens of thousands of staff who returned, the student nurses and medical students who stepped up and our colleagues in the armed services.
“We are also hugely grateful to all those who have played their part in cutting infections and slowing the spread of the virus, which has undoubtedly saved many lives.”
Sir Simon said the toughest moment in the past year was seeing the pictures from Italy in March where hospitals were overwhelmed.
He said hospitals in the UK had treated more coronavirus patients in the last three months than they did in the previous nine.
He visited the mass vaccination hub at Newcastle’s Centre for Life, then toured the RVI, speaking to the team working on vaccine research.
Sir Simon then went on the High Consequence Infectious Diseases ward where the first patients were treated.
The hi-tech 18 bed ward is still used for coronavirus patients.
He also spoke to two of the paramedics who transferred the first patients from Hull to Newcastle.
Consultant Dr Matt Schmid, who led the team that treated the first patients, said: “Looking back a year on, it is incredible to think that my team treated what would be the first of many tens of thousands of Covid-19 patients across the country.
“Although an unknown disease at the time, we were prepared to care for those first patients, and experienced the beginning of huge changes to the way the whole health service delivers care and the way we worked.
“I am very proud of the standard of care we delivered to those first patients in January 2020 and of how we have maintained that standard under ever-increasing pressure.
“Now, as then, we have met each Covid-19 patient with care and compassion in their darkest moments and as we have developed our knowledge of the virus, we have swiftly adapted to deliver the highest possible level of care.
“I want to thank my team and all of those helping to fight the virus across the country for the lengths they have gone to ever since we treated those first patients 12 months ago.”
In the early days of the pandemic the NHS set up quarantine centres for people returning from China in Arrowe Park, on the Wirral, and Milton Keynes.
At the peak of the first wave, NHS staff were caring for nearly 19,000 patients in hospital with Covid and this increased to more than 33,000 patients at the peak in January this year.
The Coronavirus Response Service and NHS 111 answered more than 18 million calls, a 19.6% increase on the previous year’s call volume, giving more people needing urgent care an alternative to attending A&E.