The UK is bracing in case London is overwhelmed by COVID-19 infections, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday, as hospitals in the capital could be inundated with patients within two weeks.
Projections leaked to the leading medical publication, the Health Service Journal (HSJ), published on Wednesday, showed that even if the number of COVID-19 patients increased to the lowest rate considered likely, hospitals in London would run out of nearly 2,000 acute and intensive beds by January 19.
Asked about the estimates, Hancock said he was concerned about pressure on the National Health Service (NHS), but said the government was putting additional resources in the most heavily used areas.
Hancock told broadcasters that a field hospital in the ExCeL convention center in east London is on hold and ready to relieve pressure on the NHS if needed.
“We are investing additional resources to make sure the NHS gets the support it needs in areas of the country where it is under the greatest pressure,” he said.
“For example in London, (we’re making sure) Nightingale Hospital is on hold and there if needed. And if it is necessary, of course, then it will be used. “
Nightingale Hospital was initially set up for intensive care for COVID-19, but only 51 patients were treated there before being put on hold in May.
The British Medical Journal reported it was being reassigned to take non-COVID patients recovering from operations and procedures, to alleviate unprecedented demand for beds elsewhere.
London seized by new COVID variant
On Wednesday, the daily number of COVID-19 deaths across the UK surpassed 1,000 for the first time since April. The total death toll from COVID-19 in the country since the start of the pandemic is more than 77,300, the highest in Europe.
London and the south-east of England have been the regions most affected by the new variant of the virus, which is causing an increasing workload.
According to Wednesday’s HSJ report, NHS England London medical director Vin Diwakar had told London’s most experienced doctors that in the “worst” scenario, London hospitals are expected to have a deficit of 4,400 beds by January 19.
Jonah Hull of Al Jazeera, who reports from London, said such a result would lead to doctors and nurses making “life and death decisions” about who they treat.
It could also mean delayed treatment for patients who need critical care for other health issues, Hull said.
The grim projections come as England begin a new national lockdown, which went into effect on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the lockdown conditions would remain in effect until mid-February.
By then, the government hopes to have administered a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to more than 13 million people deemed to be most at risk to the virus – including all those over the age of 70 in the country.
“There seems to be a consensus … that this new, very virulent variant of the virus is unlikely to be contained by a single lockdown,” Hull said of Al Jazeera. “All eyes are therefore now on the deployment of the vaccine.”
WHO sounds the alarm
Separately on Thursday, the European branch of the World Health Organization said more needed to be done to address the alarming situation caused by the new COVID mutation in the UK, and another that has emerged in South Africa.
Speaking at a press conference, WHO Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge called the current situation a “tipping point in the course of the pandemic”, as Europe was faced with the surge in cases and new strains of the virus.
“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short time we have to do more than we have done and step up public health and social measures to be sure that we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries.” said Kluge said, mainly referring to the new variant first discovered in the UK.
The measures proposed by Kluge were the ones “with which we are all familiar,” he said, citing adherence to widespread mask wear, limiting social gatherings, maintaining physical distancing and washing clothes. hands as being cautious but needing to be stepped up.
These measures, coupled with proper testing, quarantine, isolation and vaccination, “will work if we all get involved,” Kluge said.
Europe has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 27.6 million cases and 603,000 deaths, according to WHO monitoring.
WHO Europe also estimates that the excess mortality in 2020 was five times that of 2019 and three times that of 2018.