The number of Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals soared during Christmas week and Britain has had another record number of daily cases.
There were 11,898 Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals as of 8am on December 29, government data shows, up 44 per cent compared to the previous week, and the highest number since March 2.
In England, the number of patients in hospital has climbed to its highest level since February.
Another 189,213 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK as of 9am on Thursday, the government said, in another record.
The total includes two days of figures reported by Wales.
Supply issues affect lateral flow test distribution
The Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association urged ministers to ensure key workers are first in line for tests to help ease staffing issues.
Concerns have been raised about staff shortages caused by high numbers with Covid-19 or going into isolation.
The BMA said there were more than 18,000 staff absent from acute hospital trusts in England and that it expected that figure to be much higher when the most recent data is published this week.
"The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has no doubt had a massive impact on demand for lateral flow test kits and PCR tests," BMA chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said.
"However, it is vital that the promised new supply of kits are offered to key workers such as health and social care staff as a priority.
“Being unable to get the tests means staff may not be legally allowed to work, and at a time of acute workforce shortages and winter pressures this could be devastating for the care that can be given right across the NHS.”
Pat Cullen, chief executive of the RCN, said: “As the number of staff forced into sickness absence due to Covid-19 related reasons continues to increase, it is vital staff have access to tests to protect themselves and their patients.
“We know, however, some staff continue to face problems accessing the tests online and would urge the government to make the tests available for nursing staff as a priority, as well as ensuring there is the lab capacity for analysing tests.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has also called for NHS workers to be given full priority for tests.
“Shortages of tests and delays in getting results risks exacerbating the staffing pressures in the NHS and other critical national infrastructure," Mr Streeting tweeted.
“I’ve written to the Health Secretary urging him to make sure that they’re at the front of the queue.”
On Thursday, the Welsh government announced it would lend England four million lateral flow tests, bringing the total it has given England to 10 million.
“Wales has a significant stock of lateral flow tests, sufficient to meet our needs over the weeks ahead,” said First Minister Mark Drakeford.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said the supply of lateral flow devices is being tripled in January and February from a pre-Omicron plan of 100 million to 300 million a month.
“To respond to anticipated demand over the coming few weeks we are buying hundreds of millions more LFD tests, bringing new products on board and accelerating their deployment to the public,” Mr Javid wrote to MPs
But “in light of the huge demand for LFDs seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day”.
The public has had problems ordering online tests in recent days, with home delivery slots for lateral flow tests unavailable on the Gov.uk website by 9am on Thursday.
Pharmacies have also complained about patchy supplies of lateral flow kits.
The UK Health Security Agency said on Wednesday that eight million lateral flow test kits would be made available to pharmacies by New Year’s Eve.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously urged people in England who were heading out for New Year’s Eve festivities on Friday to get tested.
Prof Peter Openshaw, who is on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said the conditions at a New Year’s Eve gathering were “perfect” for spreading coronavirus.
“I think it’s very worrying indeed,” he told BBC Radio 4. "We know the situations in which transmission happens and fortunately I don’t think we are facing the sort of lockdown that was necessary in order to cope in the very earliest part of this year.
“But we do know that crowding together in poorly ventilated spaces, particularly if you are shouting over loud music and so on, is absolutely perfect in terms of transmitting this very, very highly transmissible virus.”
In England, unlike other parts of the UK, nightclubs remain open and there are no limits on social mixing.
The NHS Covid Pass is required for entry to nightclubs but this can be obtained by people who have had two shots of vaccine, rather than requiring proof of a negative test.
The latest daily figures also show another 332 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
This includes a backlog of hospital deaths reported by NHS England from December 24 to 29.
Cases rise across Europe
France reported 206,243 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the latest 24-hour period on Thursday, rising above 200,000 for the second day running as the Omicron variant takes hold.
A record of 208,099 was set on Wednesday, as Health Minister Olivier Veran warned of a "tsunami" of infections.
The seven-day moving average of daily new infections, which evens out reporting irregularities, reached a record 121,566, a figure that quadrupled in only a month.
Wearing masks in the streets of Paris and Lyon will be mandatory again as authorities seek to avoid a New Year's Eve infection surge.
The total number of people admitted to hospital for Covid-19 has increased by 465 over 24 hours, standing at a more than seven-month peak of 18,321.
But that figure is still almost half the record 33,497 reached in November 2020.
The Covid-19 death toll increased by 180 over 24 hours to 123,552. The seven-day moving average of daily deaths also stood at 180.
Italy reported 126,888 Covid-19 related cases on Thursday, compared with 98,030 the day before, the Health Ministry said, while the number of deaths rose to 156 from 148.
Greece reported a single-day record high of 35,580 Covid-19 infections on Thursday as the highly contagious Omicron becomes the dominant variant in the country.
It was the third successive day of record of cases, with infections more than tripling since the start of the week.
"It seems that the raid of Omicron is very intense," Deputy Health Minister Mina Gaga said.
Ms Gaga said that more than 60 per cent of new cases relate to the new variant.