Hospitals are under more pressure from Covid-19 than they have ever been, the Prime Minister warned as he ordered a new national lockdown across England.
Boris Johnson said that hospitals are 40% busier than the first peak of the virus in April 2020.
It comes as some doctors compared working in the NHS to being in a warzone.
The British Medical Association (BMA) welcomed the lockdown as it warned that hospitals are “stretched to breaking point”.
In his address to the nation, Mr 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.”
He said that across the UK, a record number of people tested positive for coronavirus on December 29 – around 80,000 people.
Mr Johnson said that over the last week the number of deaths was up 20% over the last week and “will sadly rise further”.
It comes after the UK’s chief medical officers raised the Covid-19 alert level to five – its highest – meaning “transmission is high or rising exponentially” and “there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.
The alert level has not been at level five before.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “It’s clear that we need a major intervention to bring down the spread of this virus, especially the new more aggressive variant, given that the NHS in on the brink – currently facing exponential demand for care beyond what can be supplied in many places.
“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.
“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.
“The vaccination of healthcare workers needs to be significantly sped up so that health and care staff across the country are prioritised to receive both the first and second doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to help keep them free of the virus, so they can continue to provide the care so vitally needed by so many.”
A leading surgeon has raised concerns that cancer operations could be cancelled if the NHS becomes overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.
The health service has done its best to maintain cancer operations and other emergency services throughout the pandemic.
But now a top surgeon has raised concerns over the possibility of cancer operations being cancelled or postponed.
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said that many places had already stopped lower priority surgeries such as hip and knee replacements.
He told Times Radio: “Over the weekend we talked about a slow-motion car crash, but I think it’s getting much worse than that now.
“My colleagues in London doing ward rounds, for example, report that there are problems with staff numbers on the wards, staff numbers in theatres.
“And then of course if you need to go to the intensive care unit, if the intensive care unit is full of Covid patients, there’s no room for you.
“So it’s a really serious situation and, obviously, the less-priority operations have already stopped in many places – hips, knees, ENT (ear nose and throat) procedures.
“We’re now concerned about operations like cancer surgeries being cancelled or postponed because there just isn’t the capacity to be able to manage them.”
Prof Mortensen added: “I think if you have a delayed operation for cancer that may have an effect.
“If you come in from a road traffic accident and you’re seriously ill, and you need to go to an intensive care unit afterwards and there is no intensive care unit, that’s going to have serious consequences.
“And that’s why everybody is so concerned right now that we are properly locked down, that we’re as far as we possibly can reducing the transmission of the virus, and making it possible for what facilities we do have to carry on working effectively to keep people alive.”