NHS still at ‘full stretch’ as warning comes against relaxing lockdown too early

Catherine Wylie and David Hughes, PA

The NHS is operating at “full stretch” and remains under “huge pressure”, according to a leading health official who has called for a cautious approach to lifting lockdown measures.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said intensive care unit (ICU) numbers are coming down “very slowly”, adding that there are still 26,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals – 40% more than the peak in the first phase last April.

He also said NHS staff are “deeply exhausted” having worked at “fever pitch intensity” for weeks.

His comments come after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the country was past the peak of the current wave, but also warned that this “doesn’t mean you could never have another peak”.

Prof Whitty told a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday: “I think that most of my colleagues think we are past the peak.”

He said that “provided people continue to follow the guidelines”, the UK is “on the downward slope of cases, of hospitalisations and of deaths”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that while there are “some signs of hope” with the numbers of Covid patients in hospital starting to fall, “the level of infection is still alarmingly high”.

In a series of tweets on Thursday, Mr Hopson said: “Lots of talk today about ‘being over the peak’ and what that means for how quickly we can relax restrictions on social contact.

“But there are still 26,000 covid-19 patients in hospitals. That’s 40% more than the peak in the first phase of Covid last April.

“The NHS is currently running at 170% of last year’s ICU capacity and trusts were still having to create new extra ICU surge capacity last week. The ICU numbers are coming down very slowly. Hospital, community, ambulance and mental health services are still at full stretch.

“There’s another national cold snap forecast next week which will increase demand for NHS services, as it always does.

“NHS staff are deeply exhausted & fatigued having worked at fever pitch intensity for many weeks. So, if we want to use mountain analogies (peaks etc).

“The NHS has barely crested the peak and it’s still at an extremely high altitude under huge pressure. The descent down the mountain has only just started and we don’t know how steep the down slope will be. We also know that the descent will likely take months, not days/weeks.

“We saw last year what happened when we released restrictions on social contact too quickly. The impact of the vaccination will help significantly…over time. But to save lives and reduce patient harm, we need a cautious, evidence based, approach to relaxing the restrictions.”

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