Covid: NHS chief warns of hospital pressures as Boris Johnson faces decision on lockdown ending

As lockdown lifts, hospitals are busy recovering care backlogs, ITV News Correspondent Geraint Vincent reports

Boris Johnson faces a difficult decision about whether to end England’s lockdown on June 21 with hospitals already under «worrying» pressure, a health chief has warned.

The continued spread of the Indian coronavirus variant has prompted experts to argue restrictions should remain in place until more people have received both doses of a vaccine.

Ministers are also considering plans to keep some measures, such as the continued use of face masks and guidance on working from home, in place.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said hospital bosses were concerned about the transmissibility of the B1617.2 variant and the large number of people who have still to receive doses of the vaccine.

He warned that although hospitals were not expecting to be overwhelmed by a surge of Covid cases, they were already stretched by going «full pelt» on dealing with the backlog of cases built up during the pandemic and urgent care needs.

Chris Hopson has called for a ‘better quality of debate’ over all lockdown measures being lifted Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA

But he said it was «very significant and important» that the evidence suggests the success of the vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospital admissions, serious illness and death than previously experienced.

«Significant numbers of Covid-19 hospital inpatients will adversely impact care backlog recovery,» he said.

Meanwhile Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) Government advisory panel, said there was still «quite a lot of uncertainty» around the June 21 unlocking date.

He told LBC: «We are starting to see signs of course that cases are going up, but at the moment we’re still obviously reporting hospital admissions and deaths at very low levels.»

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Dr Tildesley highlighted there can be a delay of a week or two between case increases and hospital admissions possibly rising, but said the country was in “a very different place” to where it was in January.

He said scientists had “an awful lot of work to do” to analyse data on the link between cases and hospital admissions, while bearing in mind the situation with the Indian variant, to give evidence to the Government.

And he warned if a big wave of cases was allowed to build, that could give rise to new, more dangerous, mutations.

“The problem is, if you have huge numbers of cases, then that increases the risk of the virus mutating, and it may be that you might get a variant emerging that all of a sudden evades the vaccines completely.”

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the Government was waiting for the latest data on June 14 before deciding whether to proceed with easing the lockdown on June 21.

Nadhim Zahawi said he will «not stand by» and let coronavirus spread like «wildfire» in communities with low vaccine take-up. Credit: PA

Asked whether that step could be taken if cases were still increasing, he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “What I’m saying to you is we have to be cautious. We have to look at the data and share it with the country.

“Are we still vaccinating at scale? Big tick. Are the vaccines working? Yes. But are infection rates too high for us to then not be able to proceed because there are too many people getting into hospital? I don’t know the answer to it.

“But we will know it on, hopefully on the 14th, a few more weeks.”

He said that as the virus becomes endemic “we’re going to have to live with a certain amount of Covid being transmitted”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned mistakes are being repeated as ministers consider easing lockdown Credit: Ian Forsyth/PA

Writing in The Observer, opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said “weak, slow decisions” by the Government on border policy had allowed the Indian variant to spread. He added that the “single biggest threat” to England’s full reopening was “the Government’s incompetence”. New figures showed more than half of people in their 30s in England have received a coronavirus vaccination in a period of little over two weeks. NHS England said that since it began opening up the vaccine rollout to this age group on May 13, some 53% of those aged 30 to 39 have been given at least one dose. People aged 30 to 31 were the most recent group to be invited for their jab – from Wednesday – with more than five million appointments made through the national booking service within 72 hours.

More than half the UK population has now had at least one Covid jab. Credit: PA

Current data suggests that although hospital admissions are rising in some parts of the country affected by the Indian variant, overall admissions remain broadly flat. Meanwhile, the reproduction number – the R value – for England is 1 to 1.1, up from 0.9 and 1.1 the previous week, suggesting the epidemic is growing. A scientific adviser has warned confusion over the Government’s handling of Covid restrictions was undermining efforts to control the virus. Professor Stephen Reicher, a psychologist on the Sage sub-committee advising ministers on behavioural science, said the Government was in a “pickle” because it appeared to have abandoned the “data not dates” principle. Meanwhile, British intelligence operatives reportedly now believe it is “feasible” the pandemic began with a leak from a research laboratory in Wuhan, China. The Times says the development, which Beijing has angrily denied, has prompted US diplomatic sources to share their concerns “we are one wet market or bio lab away from the next spillover”.

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