The number of people in hospital with coronavirus is at its highest since February last year, figures show, amid increasing pressure on health services.
A total of 17,276 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of January 4, government figures show, up 58 per cent on the previous week and the highest number since February 19.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the country is seeing its fastest growth in cases, as more than 20 National Health Service trusts declared a critical incident.
During the second wave of coronavirus, the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital peaked at 39,254 on January 18, 2021.
There were 2,258 Covid-19 hospital admissions on December 28, the latest UK-wide figure available, up 83 per cent week on week and the highest number since February 3.
Daily admissions during the second wave peaked at 4,583 on January 12, 2021.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said hospital admissions were “doubling around every nine days”.
Number 10 said more than 20 trusts had now reached the alert level where priority services may be under threat, but stressed it was “not a good indicator” of the pressures the health service was under.
The University Hospitals Bristol, Weston NHS Foundation Trust and the North Bristol NHS Trust, which run hospitals including the Bristol Royal Infirmary, the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children and Southmead, said they were at their “highest state of alert”.
The North East Ambulance Service said it asked for patients with “potentially non-life-threatening” conditions to be taken to hospital by a relative if an ambulance was delayed over the bank holiday weekend.
Morecambe Bay NHS Trust and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust were also among those declaring critical situations.
“I think my understanding on critical incidents, obviously the numbers do vary … it’s worth understanding that critical incidents can last, in some certain circumstances, a matter of hours, a morning or afternoon, a day, some of them can last longer than that," said the Prime Minister’s official spokesman.
“So they’re not a good indicator necessarily of how the NHS is performing. We know that there are a number of trusts that have reported critical incidents.
“I believe it’s more than 20 currently, but that number will fluctuate. But again, those critical incidents can vary in terms of their scale. Some can relate to one part of the trust, some can be across the whole trust.
"So it’s not a good indicator, necessarily, of NHS performance at any one time.”
Tories urge PM to outline exit strategy on how UK can live with Covid
Also in the Commons, Conservative MPs called on Mr Johnson to outline a Covid exit strategy and show how the UK can “live with this virus” in the long term.
He faced questions from his own backbenchers on when restrictions will be dropped, such as working from home guidance, and for assurances that certain sectors will be exempt from any future curbs.
Mr Johnson said face masks in schools would “not last a day more” than needed and noted there are no restrictions on weddings and funerals at the moment.
“That’s certainly the way we wish to keep it,” he said.
But Mr Johnson was also pressed to go further by some senior Tories on the wider plan to respond to the virus through 2022 and beyond.
Conservative former prime minister Theresa May commended him for resisting calls for more restrictions before Christmas and for further changes announced on Wednesday.
“We will see new variants appear in future and the likelihood is that they will continue to be less serious," she added in the Commons.
“It is not in the national interest to partially or wholly shut down sectors of our economy every time we see a new variant.”
Mr Johnson said a vaccine that “can deal with any type of Covid mutation” is needed, as well as therapeutics.
Conservative former minister Mark Harper asked him when he would set out a plan “to live with this virus, like normal, forever”.
“We cannot respond to every new variant in the way we have to this one," said Mr Harper, the MP for Forest of Dean. “When is he going to set that plan out in this House, so that we all know where we stand?”
Mr Johnson repeated that the “measures we have in place expire on January 26” as some Labour MPs could be heard shouting: “And then what? What is the plan?”
“Whatever the situation may be then, and I am confident that it will be much better ... we will continue with the fundamental, the tools that we have, that is vaccination, therapeutics and testing, but it is important that Omicron seems to provide some sort of immunity already against Delta,” he said.
Conservative former health minister Steve Brine pressed Mr Johnson on a “long-term plan for living with Covid in 2022”, as he suggested the current measures were not “sustainable”.
Mr Brine, the MP for Winchester, said Mr Johnson “deserves real credit” for his recent decisions on Covid.
“It is increasingly clear we are a long way from learning to live with Covid but we also have an NHS on a permanent war footing and that’s not sustainable," he said.
“So what is the long-term plan for living with Covid in 2022 and could that include any changes to mandatory isolation, test and trace as for instance we see different isolation dates in the US and Germany to here in the UK?”
Mr Johnson said the government would continue to “keep isolation timings under review” as it did not want to “release people back into society so soon”.
“As I said in my earlier answers, I do think we have a good chance of getting through this difficult wave and getting back to something like normality as fast as possible," he said.
Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh said Lincolnshire MPs had been told by NHS officials that “only two” intensive care beds in the county were taken by people “because of or with Covid”.
“Although there were large numbers of staff absences, a quarter of them were accounted by staff being absent because they were isolating," Mr Leigh said.
“So the suspicion is the NHS is not being brought to its knees by Covid but by these rules that require people to isolate for so long. So what is the road map for shortening the period of isolation?”
Mr Johnson responded: “Absences, although are high, are not as high as it has been at some other points in this pandemic. That’s no cause for complacency.
“What we will do is keep the period of isolation under constant review and if we think we can bring it down without increasing infection then of course we will.”