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13 July 2022updated 27 Jul 2022 9:49am

Hospitals are under pressure from Covid-19 once again

There is a shortage of hospital beds and ambulances, but Conservative leadership candidates would rather talk tax cuts.

By Michael Goodier

One topic the Conservative leadership candidates have been reluctant to discuss so far is the continuing strain on the NHS posed by Covid-19

Despite the NHS backlog continuing to grow (6.48 million people are now waiting for treatment in England), so far only Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat have made health service policy statements, with Hunt having committed to keep the Health and Social Care Levy (and bring back family doctors), and Tugendhat committing to reintroduce a binding A&E and referrals target.

The Covid-19 virus hasn’t gone away – staffing levels continue to be affected, and a new wave caused by the latest BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the Omicron variant is putting pressure on beds. Covid-19 is much less deadly than it was, thanks mainly to the vaccination programme, as well as Omicron taking over from the more severe Delta variant. However, the percentage of people testing positive is rising.

The latest figures from the ONS show just under 4 per cent of people in England were testing positive for Covid-19 in the week ending 29 June, up from just over 3 per cent a week earlier. In Northern Ireland 5.4 per cent tested positive (up from 3.7 per cent the previous week), Wales saw 4.9 per cent testing positive (up from 3.2 per cent), and in Scotland 5.9 per cent tested positive in the week ending 30 June (up from 5.2 per cent).

The rise in infections is slowly but surely putting a strain on hospital beds. As of 5 July, more than 11,000 hospital beds in England were occupied by Covid-19 patients – the highest figure since April 26, during the Omicron BA.2 wave. Staff absences are also rising, reaching 10,823 on 8 June – the highest figure since 18 May. The Health Service Journal has reported that all ten ambulance trusts in England are now on the highest alert level due to the heatwave and high staff absence rates due to Covid-19.

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The interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “The road ahead will be rocky if overstretched NHS staff and services, already working flat out to bring down waiting lists and facing a range of other pressures, have to deal with more and more Covid-19 cases added to the threat of an early wave of flu and a heatwave next week, which will affect many people’s health.

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“And at a time when our politicians have crunch decisions to make on big issues for the NHS – such as the roll-out of more Covid-19 booster jabs, how we continue to manage and ‘live with’ the virus, and a pay rise for staff – the uncertain political backdrop is unsettling.

“It’s shaping up to be a very challenging summer, autumn and winter for an under pressure NHS. Trust leaders are doing all they can to plan and prepare for difficult days ahead.”

NHS England figures show that some hospital trusts are now more than 99 per cent full when it comes to beds – and not all of the empty ones are available to non-Covid-19 patients. The worst-hit region is the south-west, which had 96.5 per cent of general, acute and adult critical care beds occupied as of 5 July, with only 2.7 per cent of beds available to non-Covid-19 patients. You can see the worst-hit trusts in the table below.

Reacting to the latest ONS figures on Covid prevalence, Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “There is no reason to expect that waves of Covid-19 associated with new variants will stop any time soon, so we need to plan for a continued strain on the NHS. 

“We should not think of ‘living with Covid’ as a strategy; it is simply an acceptance of reality. We are going to need a long-term public health strategy for living with Covid.”

[See also: How worried should we be about the new Covid wave?]

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