The United Kingdom is making preparations in case London is overwhelmed by COVID-19 infections, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday, amid reports hospitals in the capital could be inundated with patients within two weeks.
Projections leaked to leading medical publication the Health Service Journal (HSJ), published on Wednesday, showed that even if the number of COVID-19 patients increased at the lowest rate considered likely, London hospitals would be short of nearly 2,000 acute and intensive beds by January 19.
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Asked about the estimates, Hancock said he was concerned about the pressures on the National Health Service (NHS) but claimed the government was putting extra resources into areas under the most significant strain.
Hancock told broadcasters a field hospital set up in east London’s ExCeL convention centre was on standby and ready to relieve pressure on the NHS if required.
“We’re putting in the extra resources to make sure that the NHS gets the support it needs in the parts of the country where it’s under the most significant pressure,” he said.
“For instance in London, (we are) making sure that the Nightingale hospital is on standby and there if needed. And if it is needed, of course, then it will be used.”
The Nightingale hospital was originally set up for COVID-19 critical care, but only 51 patients were treated there before it was mothballed in May.
The British Medical Journal reported it was being repurposed to take non-COVID patients recovering from operations and procedures, in order to relieve the unprecedented demand for beds elsewhere.
London gripped by new COVID variant
On Wednesday, the daily number of deaths from COVID-19 across the UK surpassed 1,000 for the first time since April. The country’s total COVID-19 death toll since the start of the pandemic is more than 77,300, among the highest in Europe.
London and southeast England have been the areas worst hit by the new variant of the virus, which is driving the spiralling caseload.
According to Wednesday’s HSJ report, NHS England London Medical Director Vin Diwakar had told London’s most senior doctors that under the “worst” case scenario, London’s hospitals are predicted to have a shortfall of 4,400 beds by January 19.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said such an outcome would lead to doctors and nurses having to make “life-and-death decisions” about who they treat.
It could also mean delayed treatment for patients who need critical care for other health conditions, Hull said.
The bleak projections come as England begins a new national lockdown, which went into force on Tuesday.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the lockdown terms would remain in place until mid-February.
By then, the government hopes to have given one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to more than 13 million people who are judged most at risk from the virus – including everyone in the country older than 70.
“There does seem to be consensus … that this new highly virulent variant of the virus probably won’t be contained by a lockdown alone,” Al Jazeera’s Hull said. “So all eyes now are on the vaccine roll-out.”
WHO raises alarm
Separately on Thursday, the World Health Organization’s European branch said more needed to be done to deal with the alarming situation brought on by the new COVID mutation in the UK, and another which has emerged out of South Africa.
Speaking at a news conference, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, called the current situation “a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic”, as Europe was challenged by surging cases and the new strains of the virus.
“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries,” Kluge said, referring primarily to the new variant first discovered in the UK.
The measures proposed by Kluge were those “with which we are all familiar”, he said, as he listed the adherence to generalised mask-wearing, limiting social gatherings, maintaining physical distance and hand-washing as prudent but in need of being intensified.
These measures, coupled with adequate testing, quarantine and isolation, and vaccination, “will work if we all get involved”, Kluge said.
Europe has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 27.6 million cases and 603,000 deaths, according to the WHO’s monitoring.
WHO Europe also estimates that excess mortality in 2020 was five times that of 2019 and three times that of 2018.