NHS chief urges people to keep following covid rules to get through 'winter hump'

13 December 2020, 15:20 | Updated: 13 December 2020, 15:24

NHS staff tend to a Covid patient on an intensive care ward in Merseyside.
NHS staff tend to a Covid patient on an intensive care ward in Merseyside. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA

By Joe Cook

NHS bosses have written to Boris Johnson warning that relaxing restrictions could trigger a third wave of Covid infections, putting huge pressure on hospitals.

The intervention from NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, comes ahead of the first review of England’s tier allocations on Wednesday, with regions set to be put in tighter or lower restrictions.

In the letter to the Prime Minister, the NHS chiefs urged "extreme caution" in moving any area of England to a lower tier, with areas moved into the highest tier of restrictions "as soon as this is needed, without any delay".

Read more: Welsh hospital 'under significant pressure' due to 'high number of Covid patients presenting'

The Chief executive of NHS Providers told LBC “the only way” the NHS will get through this winter, providing all the necessary services to patients, is if “we control the number of Covid patients”.

“Each of the last five winters has shown the NHS is short of beds. This year we have got 10,000 fewer beds than last year because hospitals need to have very strict infection controls in the place.

“Of the remainder, 13,000 of them, as of two days ago, are now occupied by Covid patients.”

Read more: Independent SAGE member urges public to ignore Christmas easing

He added: “It has been a very long, dark, difficult tunnel. The good news is that we can now see some light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think what we are all really worried about is, because people can see that light they think we have actually reached the end of the tunnel and the reality is we haven’t.

“We just need to make sure that we make that one last heave to get over the hump of winter.”

Read more: Former public health boss suggests deferring Christmas to April or May

It comes after Sadiq Khan urged Londoners to follow social-distancing measures and wear face coverings while Christmas shopping this weekend.

Crowds descended on the shopping districts of major cities, including London's Regent Street, on Saturday.

Increased infection rates have led to fears the capital could be headed for Tier 3 restrictions, which would see hospitality settings closed except for takeaway.

Although the letter to the PM does not call for a review of the relaxation of measures over Christmas, Mr Hopson told LBC they are calling for Boris Johnson to “personally lead a debate which effectively talks about what the potential risks are, rather than just saying... that if you stick to the rules everything will be alright”.

“The reality is that as soon as you increase social contact, particularly with those people who are vulnerable to Covid, you are increasing the risk.”

Read more: Germany to enter new national lockdown over Christmas and into New Year

The NHS chief continued: “We can see some sunlit uplands from late spring, early summer, but in the meantime restrictions on social contact are the only way in which we can cut the number of Covid patients.

“It is therefore really important that everybody not only observes the rules but think carefully about what extra social contact they are going to have at Christmas.”

Many public health experts are also calling for the public to take extreme care over the Christmas period.

On Sunday, Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University tweeted: “Christmas mixing in the U.K. is a terrible idea. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

“Please, please be cautious over the holidays and remember those working in hospitals,” she urged.

“Why risk infecting your loved ones when they could get the vaccine within weeks and months? We’ve been doing this for 10 months. What’s another few weeks?”

Read more: Community Covid testing to be rolled out in Tier 3 areas

A government spokesperson said: “We will not hesitate to take necessary actions to protect local communities and tiering decisions are made by ministers based on the latest available data and advice from public health experts.

“We have introduced strengthened local restrictions to protect the progress gained during national restrictions, reduce pressure on the NHS and ultimately save lives.

“On top of our record NHS investment, this winter we are providing an extra £3 billion to maintain independent sector and Nightingale hospital surge capacity and a further £450 million to upgrade and expand A&Es.

“We know that Christmas cannot be normal this year, but we have worked closely with devolved administrations to reach agreement on a single set of UK-wide measures to help people come together with their loved ones in a way that is as safe as possible.”