Covid infections are rising in England and have reached unprecedented levels in Scotland and Wales. It is a picture that, in months gone by, would have caused alarm.
Yet with restrictions eased and the advice to stay at home if infected with coronavirus due to be lifted on 1 April, it would be easy to think the threat posed by Covid has been neutralised. Infections may rise, in other words, but our concern need not.
It is a sunny thought – but hospital figures paint a slightly gloomier picture.
While vaccinations, antivirals, improved treatments and the rise of variants that are intrinsically less severe than Delta have all helped to weaken the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths, they have not severed it. And as infection levels have risen, so have the number of Covid patients in hospital.
According to the latest data for the UK, that figure has increased from 10,554 on 26 February to 17,440 on 24 March.
In Scotland, the number of Covid patients in hospital has already reached a record high, with 2,326 reported on Friday, while unprecedented numbers have been reported in a number of NHS trusts around England.
Among them are Northern Devon healthcare NHS trust, Royal Cornwall hospitals NHS trust, University Hospitals Sussex NHS foundation trust and York teaching hospital NHS foundation trust – the latter had 251 Covid patients in hospital on Monday, exceeding the previous high of 215 recorded on 26 January 2021.
Meanwhile, the latest flu and Covid report from the UK health security agency (UKHSA) has revealed the weekly rate of Covid hospital admissions in England is at its highest for a year among people aged 75 and over.
Not everyone is perturbed. Early this month the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said there was no “cause for concern”, despite the rising numbers of cases and people in hospital with Covid.
It is true that, since Omicron arrived, the proportion of hospital patients with Covid who are primarily being treated for Covid has fallen, dropping from, roughly, 70% to slightly below 50%, according to UKHSA data.
However, the proportion has been steady for some weeks now. In other words it is not just the number of patients who are in hospital with an “incidental” Covid infection that is increasing.
Indeed NHS England figures show that on 22 March, 5,409 patients were primarily being treated for Covid in hospitals in England, up from 4,475 the week before and 3,661 a fortnight previously. That is a rise of almost 50% in two weeks.
The burden felt by NHS trusts is multifaceted. More people coming into hospitals because of Covid places a direct pressure on resources. But there is also concern over rising numbers of patients who test positive for Covid but are primarily being treated for something else, as that can reduce the availability of beds for emergency admissions and those requiring planned operations, a particular concern given the staggering backlog for surgery and other care. It can also mean already vulnerable patients become more unwell. Analysts have also suggested hospital-acquired Covid infections are on the up, while hospitals have also been hit by staff absences related to Covid.
“There was an expectation that there would be an uptick [in Covid cases] once measures were lifted, but people weren’t expecting quite as steep an increase, so soon,” said Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers.
“The rising number of hospitalisations due to Covid-19, rising Covid-related staff absences, and infection prevention control measures have a knock-on impact on how fast trusts can deliver backlog recovery.”
Cordery added the NHS was not currently expecting the same level of pressure as before Christmas. Nonetheless some have had to take drastic action. This week East Suffolk and North Essex foundation trust (ESNEFT) and Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS foundation trust suspended most visiting, with a number of others including the Royal Cornwall hospitals NHS trust having previously made similar announcements.
Quite how much of a big squeeze the NHS will face in the current Covid wave is unclear, or how long it will last. But with infection levels rising in all parts of England, in Scotland and in Wales it seems to many that the situation for hospitals is set to get worse before it gets better.