The number of patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 every day in England has more than doubled since the start of July.
The areas hardest hit by hospitalisations are the North East and the North West and Yorkshire, where as many as one in every 20 beds is occupied by someone with COVID-19.
The East of England has the lowest proportion of beds occupied by coronavirus patients and is running closest to full capacity.
It is not unusual for hospitals to operate with few spare beds. Overnight general and acute bed occupancy averaged 90.2% in 2018/2019, and regularly exceeded 95% over the winter months.
But it is concerning that hospitals are starting to divert resources away from other patients as COVID-19 admissions rise. Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham cancelled elective operations on Thursday and Friday due to a lack of space in intensive care.
Over the week to 13 July, the number of hospitalisations doubled in 20 NHS Trusts in England where there were more than five COVID-19 patients in the previous week.
Nearly half (48.5%) of all NHS Trusts in England saw a drop in patients suffering with other illnesses while also admitting more coronavirus patients.
The NHS is also under mounting pressure from a backlog of other patients. Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned that the current waiting list of 5.3 million NHS patients could reach 13 million in the coming months.
Staff shortages are also creating problems. More than one in six frontline medical staff were absent in the last week of June as they were infected or forced to self-isolate, up from around one in nine over the same period last month, according to NHS England.
The overall picture for England is not so stark. The latest data suggests that one in 40 hospital beds is occupied by someone that has tested positive for COVID-19, although the number is beginning to creep up.
But it is important to note that today’s hospitalisation figures reflect case rates a few weeks ago, as it takes time for an infected person to develop severe symptoms.
Over the past two weeks, infection levels have increased rapidly around the country. Over the past fortnight, the North East has seen infections per 100,000 people double.
These trends suggest that coronavirus hospitalisations will rise in coming weeks. Lifting England’s remaining restrictions on Monday is expected to significantly exacerbate this pressure on the NHS.
We could reach “quite scary numbers” for COVID-19 hospitalisations in a few weeks, if the current trends in the data, according to government scientific advisor Professor Chris Whitty.
He told a webinar hosted by the Science Museum: “I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast.”
The hope is that vaccines will reduce the number of cases that lead to hospitalisation. But experts say that the link has currently only been weakened, not broken.
Dr Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control, said that vaccinating more young people is the key to breaking the link and reducing transmission.
He told the Science Media Centre: “Only once we have fully vaccinated a significant proportion of these young people will vaccination, alone, be able to reduce the daily new case numbers.”
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