Doctors have compared hospitals to “warzones” as the UK’s top health officials said the NHS risks being overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic within three weeks.
On Monday evening, the four chief medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland recommended that the COVID-19 alert level should be moved to five, its highest setting, which means there is a danger of the NHS being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.
Just two hours later, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that England would enter its third national lockdown of the pandemic, putting it in line with the other UK countries.
He said hospitals are 40% busier than during the first coronavirus peak last April.
The British Medical Association welcomed the new lockdown, saying hospitals are “stretched to breaking point”.
Watch: COVID alert level raised as NHS risks being overwhelmed
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “Doctors are desperate, with some even comparing their working environment to a warzone as wards overflow, waiting lists grow, and ambulances queue outside hospitals because there are now so many people with COVID-19.
“As a result, the NHS is currently facing a perfect storm of immense workload and staff burnout and more cases expected as we see the impact of Christmas on infection rates.
“Hospitals are stretched to breaking point, with doctors reporting unbearable workloads as they take on more COVID-19 admissions alongside the growing backlog of people who need other, non-COVID care.”
On Tuesday, Dr Claudia Paoloni, chair of the Hospital Consultants & Specialists Association, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re now in a situation where the risk of overwhelming the NHS at this point, over the next few weeks, is very, very high.
“We are very much hoping that this (lockdown) will avert an overwhelming.”
Asked what hospitals being overwhelmed could look like, she said: “What you see in London, on the news or in the papers, with ambulances lined up, unable to load their patients into accident and emergencies, could happen in every hospital throughout this country, which means that anyone with any condition may not be able to access the care that they need.”
In his televised address to the nation on Monday, Johnson said: “Our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
“In England alone, the number of COVID patients has increased by nearly a third in the last week to almost 27,000.
“That number is 40% higher than the first peak in April.”
The COVID-19 alert level was raised to five for the first time, meaning “transmission is high or rising exponentially” and “there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.
It means the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed within 21 days if no action is taken.
Government figures show there are 26,626 COVID-19 patients in hospital in England – a 30% rise on the previous week.
The peak of admissions in the first wave of coronavirus was 18,974 on 12 April, 2020.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said patients were being admitted to hospital at an “alarming rate”.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, added: “With huge pressure being placed on the NHS across the country in this last fortnight, and with the NHS’s capacity being confirmed as being at risk of becoming overwhelmed within the next 21 days, there was no option other than to take these drastic steps.
“The public must help the NHS by following the requirements of social distancing to the letter: the virus is not under control and the standards upon which the NHS prides itself are already being weakened and compromised.
“The government must only relax these restrictions when it is absolutely safe to do so.”
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said that there will not be capacity in hospitals to treat other illnesses without reducing transmission of the virus.
“There needs to be space in our hospitals for us to deal with all the other things – the heart attacks or strokes, the cancer surgeries and emergency surgery,” he told Times Radio on Tuesday.
“We have to be able to keep capacity to do those. And if we don’t reduce the transmission of the virus, there won’t be that capacity.”
He predicted the NHS will not be able to return to normal until summer.
He said: “There’ll be an enormous backlog of elective surgeries, and we may have backlogs of some more urgent surgeries to get through as well so it’s going to be a long tough, hard winter and spring.”
In a joint statement announcing the move to COVID-19 alert level five, the chief medical officers said: “Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure.
“Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant.
“We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
Watch: Boris Johnson announces new national lockdown