England’s chief medical officer has warned the coming weeks are going “to be the worst weeks” of the coronavirus pandemic for the NHS, as he urged the public to minimise unnecessary contacts in order to reduce transmissions.
Highlighting the pressure on the health service, professor Chris Whitty said that while 18,000 people were in hospital with Covid-19 during the April peak last year, on Sunday there were over 30,000 beds occupied by patients with the disease.
“This is going to be a significant crisis for the NHS unless we take evasive action,” he warned on BBC Breakfast several days after the government imposed the third nationwide lockdown in England to curb the spread of the virus.
Professor Whitty added: “We have a very significant problem. The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS.
“What we need to do before the vaccines have had their effect… is we need to really double down: this is everybody’s problem. Any single unnecessary contact you have with someone is a potential link in a chain of transmission that will lead to a vulnerable person.
“We’ve all got to as individuals help the NHS, help our fellow citizens by minimising the amount of unnecessary contacts we have.”
Professor Whitty refused to be drawn on speculation that ministers could toughen up the lockdown rules, including preventing people exercising with people outside their households, but suggested the current measures could be need until “some time in the spring” to combat the spread of the virus.
“We’ve got to make this sustainable because we’ve got to be able maintain this for several more weeks now,” he insisted.
“We’re really going to have to do a significant action for all of us for several more weeks until probably sometime in the spring for very much of what we have to do.
“So, we do obviously need to be able to do essential work which they can’t do from home. We fully accept that that’s necessary to keep society going because you’ve got to be able to do it over a period of time.
“So, the three things that people can leave home for are essential work where they can’t do it from home, when they are doing exercise – which is very important for people’s physical health, their mental health – and for essential things like shopping or medical intervention.”
In a rare series of morning interviews — highlighting the concern at the top of government over pressure facing the NHS and rising transmissions — professor Whitty also stressed that the virus can be passed on in any place where people from two different households meet together.
He said: “So, it can be passed on, and very often is passed on, in households when people invite people into their home and meet them who are not from their household. Of course, it can be passed on in any other environment: outside, in shops, in any kind of environment, and an indoor setting.
“The key thing to understand is that when you meet people from another household under any circumstances – and they’re very often your friends, your family – but those are the kind of situations where the virus is passed on.
“It doesn’t care who you are, it doesn’t care whether they’re your friends. If you meet someone from another household, the virus has an opportunity to be transmitted.”