UK hospitals struggle; tougher rules eyed to fight variant

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Ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital, in London, Tuesday Dec. 29, 2020. England Health Service figures show hospitals now have more Covid-19 patients than during April's first-wave peak, with fears of increased figures because of a Christmas social spread still to come. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

LONDON – British officials are considering tougher coronavirus restrictions as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients surpasses the first peak of the outbreak in the spring.

Authorities are blaming a new, more transmissible variant of the virus, first identified in southeast England, for the soaring infection rates. An area home to almost half of the people in England is under tight restrictions on movement and everyday life in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Nonessential shops are shut along with gyms and swimming pools, indoor socializing is barred and restaurants and pubs can only offer takeout.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to hold a meeting of his COVID-19 crisis committee later Tuesday. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is scheduled to update Parliament on Wednesday on whether more areas will be put into Tier 4 — the top level of lockdown measures — and whether the restrictions could be tightened even further.

Hospitals in the worst-hit areas of London and southern England are becoming increasingly overstretched, with ambulances unable to unload patients at some hospitals because all beds are full. A growing number of National Health Service staff are off work because they are sick with the virus or self-isolating.

England had 20,426 coronavirus patients in hospitals as of Monday morning — the last day for which figures are available — compared to its previous high of 18,974 on April 12. Britain has recorded more than 71,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths, the second-highest death toll in Europe after Italy.

A further 414 deaths were reported Tuesday, along with a record 53,135 new cases, although that figure may include a backlog from the Christmas holiday period.

Steve Hams, a chief nurse at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in western England, said medical staff were becoming “increasingly exhausted.”

“We felt during April that there would be an end to this. But actually, we’re now seeing a third peak so trying to keep our colleagues and our teams going through this time is just incredibly difficult,” he told the BBC.