More than half of all major hospital trusts in England currently have more Covid-19 patients than at the peak of the first wave of the virus, new analysis shows.
It comes as London mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident”, saying the spread of coronavirus threatens to overwhelm the capital’s hospitals.
In two regions – eastern England and south-east England – more than three-quarters of trusts are above their first-wave peak.
Other trusts have seen their numbers rise so rapidly that they could pass their first-wave peak within days.
The analysis by the PA news agency found that of 139 acute hospital trusts who reported figures for January 5, 84 – or 60% – had more Covid-19 patients than at the peak of the first wave in spring 2020.
– East Suffolk & North Essex, which had 367 confirmed Covid-19 patients as of 8am on January 5, compared with a first-wave peak of 143.
– Barts in London, where there were 830 Covid-19 patients on January 5 compared with a first-wave peak of 606.
– Portsmouth Hospitals University, which had 457 patients compared with a first-wave peak of 244.
– University Hospitals of Derby and Burton, which had 426 patients versus a first-wave peak of 252. By Friday the figure had risen to 436, the trust said.
– Hull University Teaching Hospitals, where the number stood at 208 on January 5 compared with a first-wave peak of 112.
Ipswich and Colchester hospitals are “full”, while the NHS faces a “very, very serious situation”, the chief executive of NHS East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust said.
Nick Hulme told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The real picture is certainly for the two hospitals I’m responsible for – Ipswich and Colchester – is that we’re full.
“The problem with looking at capacity data or occupancy data is it doesn’t tell a true picture – an empty bed is not necessarily an available bed because we do have to keep some beds empty for infection control reasons.”
He said there had been a lot of “very damaging” misinformation “peddled by some individuals on social media and elsewhere” which he described as “really disheartening”.
Mr Hulme added: “The picture is that this is a very, very serious situation for the NHS, the worst I’ve seen in my career by a long stretch, and we need to be honest about that.”
Gavin Boyle, chief executive of University Hospitals Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust, said they are making plans to further expand their critical care surge capacity.
In a blog on the trust website, he said: “Our critical care units have been operating well above baseline capacity for many weeks now.
“However, looking at the experiences in London and the South East, we are making plans to increase our critical care surge capacity even further.”
He said cutting the amount of planned work such as routine operations, outpatient clinics and diagnostic appointments in order to allow staff to support frontline areas like intensive care had been “a bitter pill to swallow” after efforts were made in summer and autumn to restore services for patients following the first wave.
Mr Khan said the situation in London is “now critical” with the spread of the virus “out of control”.
He said: “Our heroic doctors, nurses and NHS staff are doing an amazing job, but with cases rising so rapidly, our hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically.
“We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point. If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die.”
A majority of acute trusts in London – 14 out of 23 – are currently recording patient levels higher than at the peak of the first wave.
The same is true for south-west England (11 out of 15) and the Midlands (16 out of 23).
The proportion is even higher in south-east England (15 out of 18) and eastern England (13 out of 14).
In northern England most trusts are still below their first-wave peak, however.
Some trusts in northern areas saw numbers hit a record high in the autumn then fall back before Christmas, only to start rising again more recently.
An example is Liverpool University Hospitals Trust, which saw a peak of 475 patients on October 30, followed by a drop to 112 by December 13, but where the number now stands at 248.
Acute trusts manage all the major hospitals in England with A&E departments, inpatient and outpatient surgery, and specialist medical care.
The total number of Covid-19 patients in all hospitals in England – including mental health and community trusts – currently stands at 29,346. This is 55% above the first wave peak of 18,974 on April 12.
All figures are based on the latest available data from NHS England.