NHS chief warns of hospital pressures as Boris Johnson faces decision on June 21 easing
Boris Johnson faces a difficult decision about whether to end England’s lockdown on June 21 with hospitals already under “worrying” pressure, a health chief has warned.
The spread of the Indian coronavirus variant has cast doubt on the ability to scrap restrictions, with ministers considering plans to keep some measures – such as the continued use of face masks and guidance on working from home – in place.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said hospital bosses were concerned about the transmissibility of the B1617.2 variant and the number of people who have still to receive doses of a Covid vaccine.
He warned that although hospitals were not expecting to be overwhelmed by a surge of Covid-19 cases, they were already stretched by going “full pelt” on dealing with the backlog of cases built up during the pandemic and urgent care needs.
Hospitals are operating under reduced capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions and increased numbers of coronavirus patients will add to difficulties by requiring wards to be reconfigured, he added.
But he said it was “very significant and important” that the evidence suggests the success of the vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospital admissions, serious illness and death than previously experienced.
“Significant numbers of Covid-19 hospital inpatients will adversely impact care backlog recovery,” he said.
“(The) current degree of pressure on hospitals is worrying especially since we saw clear summer demand surges in the two years before Covid-19.
“But if, as evidence above suggests, success of (the) vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospitalisation, serious illness and mortality, even with (the) new variant, that is very significant and important. This means there is a difficult decision to make for June 21.”
He also suggested the Government needs to consider the increased burden on hospitals in UK holiday hotspots in coming months with people not travelling abroad, saying one trust chief on the south coast had warned they will “struggle” to meet the “significant extra demand”.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) Government advisory panel, said there was still “quite a lot of uncertainty” around the June 21 date.
He told LBC: “We are starting to see signs of course that cases are going up, but at the moment we’re still obviously reporting hospital admissions and deaths at very low levels.”
He highlighted there can be a delay of a week or two between case increases and hospital admissions possibly rising, but said the country was in “a very different place” to where it was in January.
He said scientists had “an awful lot of work to do” to analyse data on the link between cases and hospital admissions, while bearing in mind the situation with the Indian variant, to give evidence to the Government.
And he warned that if a big wave of cases was allowed to build, that could give rise to new, more dangerous, mutations.
“The problem is, if you have huge numbers of cases, then that increases the risk of the virus mutating, and it may be that you might get a variant emerging that all of a sudden evades the vaccines completely.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the Government would wait for the latest data on June 14 before deciding whether to proceed.