Local authorities in Essex have requested military assistance to increase hospital capacity after declaring a major incident caused by a surge in coronavirus cases.
On Wednesday officials announced they were in critical need of help in response to a “significant growing demand” on hospitals across the county.
The numbers are expected to increase further in the coming days, with cases particularly high in Mid and South Essex.
Areas of concern include critical care and bed capacity, staff sickness and the ability to discharge patients quickly into safe environments.
On Wednesday afternoon, the local MP for Harwich and North Essex Sir Bernard Jenkin said the county was in the process of requesting military help.
He told MPs in the Commons: “I can confirm to [Matt Hancock] that Essex has declared a major incident and can I also inform him that at this very moment they are submitting a request for military assistance to the civil authority, a MACA request to assist with the construction of community hospitals, additional hospital capacity and supported by the armed forces and party staffed by the armed forces.
“They would also like armed forces help with the rollout of the vaccine to accelerate that in Essex and to assist with testing in schools.”
Health secretary Hancock replied: “What he says about the pressures in Essex is very significant and it is important.
“Of course I will look favourably on any request for military assistance, working closely with [defence secretary Ben Wallace], who has been incredibly supportive, as have the whole armed forces during this whole year.”
Anthony McKeever, executive lead for Mid and South Essex Health and Care Partnership, said: “We are taking every action possible within the NHS and across the wider health and social care partnerships in Essex to limit the impact on the NHS and the wider health system.
“This involves using critical care capacity elsewhere in Essex and the Eastern region and identifying additional locations and capacity to assist with the discharging of patients to reduce pressure on hospitals.”
Hancock plunged an additional 20 million people into Tier 4 from 31 December after the number of COVID patients in hospital surpassed the first-wave peak in April.
Figures from NHS England showed there were 21,787 patients in NHS hospitals in England as of 8am on Tuesday, compared with 20,426 on Monday and 18,974 at the first-wave peak on 12 April.
In total, five of the seven NHS regions in England are currently reporting a record number of COVID-19 hospital patients: Eastern England, London, the Midlands, the South East and the South West.
On Wednesday, a “game changing” vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca was approved for use in the UK, with Hancock saying 530,000 doses will be available from Monday.
The government has ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine, enough to vaccinate 50 million people.
A jab from Pfizer and BioNTech also began rolling out at the start of the month.
Meanwhile, secondary schoolchildren in England will return to the classroom later than planned to enable the rollout of mass COVID-19 testing, education minister Gavin Williamson said on Wednesday.
Pupils in exam years will return from 11 January and all secondary and college students will return full time on 18 January.