Health workers are “back in the eye of the storm” as coronavirus cases continue to rise, NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens has said.
It has been the “toughest year” for the NHS, which has treated 200,000 severely ill Covid-19 patients, he added.
Hospitals in England are currently treating more Covid patients than at the peak of the first wave in April.
A government scientific adviser has warned national restrictions are needed to prevent a “catastrophe”.
On Monday, a record 41,385 new Covid cases were reported in the UK, though it is thought the infection rate was higher during spring when testing was much more limited.
NHS England said 20,426 people were being treated for the virus in hospitals in England on Monday, which is higher than the previous peak of about 19,000 in April.
Health officials in Wales and Scotland have also said they are at risk of becoming overwhelmed.
The spread of the new coronavirus variant means the UK is “entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic”, according to Prof Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February.”
The “50% increase in transmissibility” of the new variant means that “the previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now, and so tier four restrictions are likely to be necessary – or even higher than that”, he added.
Tier four – England’s toughest level of coronavirus restrictions, currently in place in parts of east and south-east England – includes a “stay at home” order and non-essential shops having to close.
Prof Hayward said: “I think we’re really looking at a situation where we’re moving into near lockdown.”
He added that he thought schools would have to return “maybe a little bit later” but that having schools open would mean “we’re going to have to have increased, strict restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that”.
Two stats underline the extent of the pressure on the NHS.
One is the more than 20,000 Covid patients in English hospitals, more than the peak in the first wave in April.
In many ways it is even tougher for hospitals now, as they are trying to clear the backlog on non-urgent operations and procedures cancelled in the first wave – as well as cope with the surge in Covid numbers.
It is worth pointing out, though, that one reason for the high level of patients is that some are there thanks to drugs and therapies discovered in the past year who might not have survived in the first wave.
The other key statistic is the 41,385 new daily reported cases – by far the highest number since the testing system was fully established in the summer.
Some sadly will become seriously ill after a week or so – which points to even greater strain on hospitals in the new year.
In a new year message to staff recorded at a vaccination centre, Sir Simon, the NHS England chief executive, said Covid-19 meant 2020 had probably been “the toughest year most of us can remember” – and certainly in the health service.
“Many of us have lost family, friends, colleagues and – at a time of year when we would normally be celebrating – a lot of people are understandably feeling anxious, frustrated and tired.
“And now again we are back in the eye of the storm with a second wave of coronavirus sweeping Europe and, indeed, this country.”
He said the pandemic had shown “sometimes the worst of circumstances bring out the best in people”, which he said was “certainly true across the health service”.
He also said that by late spring he expected the NHS to have offered vaccinations to all vulnerable people, which offered “the biggest chink of hope” for 2021.
Hospitals ‘becoming overwhelmed’
Hospitals in Wales, Scotland and the south of England have reported rising pressure on their services as the number of Covid patients increases.
Prof Steve Hams, a chief nurse at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said the situation was becoming “increasingly challenging” and staff were becoming “increasingly exhausted”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We felt during April that there would be an end to this but actually we’re now seeing a third peak so trying to keep our colleagues and our teams going through this time is just incredibly difficult.”
Dr Sonia Adesara, an A&E doctor in London, told the same programme that her hospital had seen “a massive rise” in people with Covid arriving in the past week, describing it as “an extremely serious situation”.
She said: “The situation is untenable and I think we are very close to becoming overwhelmed.”
However, she added that compared to April, medical staff were getting much better and more experienced at treating the virus.