Health service exceptionally busy, says NHS England’s national medical director

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NHS England national medical director Stephen Powis (PA) (PA Wire)
NHS England national medical director Stephen Powis (PA) (PA Wire)

A health service chief has said the NHS feels “exceptionally busy” amid mounting concern about rising cases and warnings over a winter crisis if coronavirus restrictions are not brought in.

NHS England’s national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said the health service is “very, very busy indeed”.

His remarks come after Matthew Taylor chief executive of the NHS Confederation – which represents health bodies, said the NHS is preparing for what could be “the most challenging winter on record” and called on the Government to enact its Plan B, measures such as face masks and vaccine passports.

It undoubtedly feels exceptionally busy in the NHS and our NHS organisations are telling us that all the time

Stephen Powis

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told a Downing Street press conference that the Government has no current plans to implement its Plan B, and repeated his warning that Covid-19 cases could reach 100,000 a day as the country enters the winter period.

He said the UK was seeing “greater pressure” on the NHS, but the Government will “do what it takes to make sure that this pressure doesn’t become unsustainable, and that we don’t allow the NHS to become overwhelmed”.

Appearing alongside Mr Javid, Prof Powis said there are just over 6,000 patients with Covid-19 in main hospitals “which is back to where we were in the middle of September”.

“And I anticipate that over the next week or two that number will increase because infection rates are increasing,” he added.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid (Toby Melville/PA) (PA Wire)
Health Secretary Sajid Javid (Toby Melville/PA) (PA Wire)

“It’s not just Covid of course, we have one eye to the flu season and we don’t know what’s going to happen with flu this year but there is a risk that we will get more flu back and it will be worse than previous years because we missed out on a season last year.

“There are other viruses around as well and of course we are continuing to do all that work around the recovery of our elective and routine services so it is very, very busy indeed.”

He added: “It undoubtedly feels exceptionally busy in the NHS and our NHS organisations are telling us that all the time.”

Prof Powis said there is no specific number of Covid-19 hospital admissions which would trigger interventions.

He said: “There is no one number that we would use to think about triggering interventions because it is more complex than that.

“There is a variety of things that we look at. So we talked about infection rates because they tell us what’s likely to happen in the NHS in the next few weeks, we’ve talked about vaccine effectiveness because that tells us how many people are likely to require hospitalisation.

“And we look at obviously the number of admissions. But we also look at what’s happening with flu and other viruses and what’s happening with other emergency admissions.”

He added: “Of course the final thing to say is that we do see geographical variation, so what’s happening in one part of the country might not be happening in another part of the country. That’s been typical of the pandemic over the last 18 months, and it’s possible that we will see that variation again.

“So there is no one number to look at, we have to look at things in the round, look at all these numbers, use judgments, and of course work closely with colleagues in UKHSA on the public health side, the Department of Health and Social Care, to take a collective judgment.”

Earlier, Mr Taylor warned “we risk stumbling into a winter crisis” unless measures are introduced now.

He called for ministers to come up with a “Plan C” of even tougher restrictions if those measures are insufficient to address pressure on the health service.

The NHS Confederation’s warning came as coronavirus deaths in the UK rose to their highest daily level since early March, while cases are at their highest for almost three months.

England’s autumn and winter coronavirus strategy includes “Plan B” as a contingency measure if the NHS comes under unsustainable pressure.

That could include legally mandating face coverings in some settings, introducing mandatory vaccine-only Covid-status certification and asking people to work from home.

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