UK jump in Covid deaths alarms hospital leaders

Coronavirus pandemic updates

Hospital leaders have expressed concern at the strain on the NHS even before young people return to school and university in the autumn, after deaths in hospital from Covid-19 reached their highest level in England for five months and hospitalisations continued to increase.

Data from the Office for National Statistics showed deaths from Covid in England rose almost 10 per cent between early and mid-August. Deaths from Covid in hospitals in England and Wales, at 468, were the worst since late March, although still well below the levels seen at the height of the second wave.

Over the past seven days the number of people hospitalised has risen by 9.1 per cent, according to data up to August 20. 

Scotland, where pupils are already back in the classroom, may offer a foretaste of potential developments in England and other parts of the UK. New coronavirus cases have more than doubled over the past week since schools and professional football resumed, with the daily total hitting 4,323 cases on Tuesday — the highest daily number recorded during the pandemic so far, first minister Nicola Sturgeon told a Covid briefing.

“If the surge continues or accelerates, and if we start to see evidence of a substantial increase in serious illness as a result, we cannot completely rule out having to reimpose some restrictions,” Sturgeon said.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said it was important to recognise that the rise in infections and hospitalisations had been steadier and less hasty as a result of the success of the vaccination campaign. “Fewer people have been getting sick and that’s a really positive thing,” she said.

However, recent evidence that both infections and admissions were on a rising trajectory was threatening to disrupt attempts to treat those whose care had been delayed at the height of the pandemic, Cordery said. 

“We’re seeing around 30,000 or more new cases each day and the number of hospitalisations are going up,” she said. The numbers needing ventilation were also rising, straining an NHS “that is now running twice as fast in order to try and get down the waiting lists and tackle that backlog of care”, she added. 

Doubly concerning was evidence from last year which showed that when schools and universities resumed infections increased. Young people were far less likely to be double-vaccinated, she said, and could act as vectors of transmission to spread the disease in their local communities.

“We need to brace ourselves for what’s ahead”, Cordery said, warning the NHS would soon be facing all the other demands that grew in winter such as a surge in respiratory diseases and more injuries. “There is a bundle of issues here that we must tackle,” she added. 

Dr Graham Jackson, senior clinical adviser to the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations across the country, said although numbers admitted to hospital were rising, the patients were generally not as severely sick as they had been at earlier points in the pandemic. “The acuity . . . is not as intense as it was”, he said.

In general, patients were contracting a milder version of the disease and even those who needed to go on ventilators often did not need to stay on them for as long as their counterparts who had fallen sick earlier in the crisis. 

However, Jackson warned that there were still many uncertainties about the future course of the disease, particularly in relation to the burden that long Covid would continue to place on the NHS.

Danny Bryden, vice-dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, said admissions to intensive treatment units had broadly been “steady” since the final government restrictions had been lifted in England on July 19 and she hoped the impact of the vaccination programme would continue to lessen the pressure in the coming weeks. However, as cases rose in the community there would inevitably be an increase in intensive care admissions, she said, just as she and her colleagues were also coping with the typical pressures of winter. 

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