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'Eye of the storm’: As U.K. coronavirus cases hit record high, health-care workers are overwhelmed

As new variants of coronavirus continue to be discovered, here's what you need to know about how these mutations work and how they spread. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)
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Doctors and nurses across Britain are sounding the alarm as confirmed cases of covid-19 reach record highs, with experts urging the government to implement a stricter lockdown to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of the National Health Service (NHS) in England, told reporters on Tuesday that hospitals were “back in the eye of the storm” as new cases surged across Europe and Britain. He said more must be done to ease the burden on health-care workers.

Some health-care workers are issuing their own public warnings, detailing how hospitals in London and the southeast of England are already setting up tents to increase their capacity. They say ambulances are waiting outside hospitals for hours because there is no space inside.

“Our control room staff are having to make incredibly difficult decisions to decide who gets an ambulance first and who they are going to ask to wait,” paramedic Will Broughton told Sky News on Tuesday.

Samantha Batt-Rawden, president of the Doctors’ Association UK and an NHS critical care doctor, used Twitter to hit back at those who said health-care workers were exaggerating. “Try holding an iPad for a patient to say goodbye to their family. Or having to … ventilate a colleague,” she wrote Monday.

Government figures suggest that the virus is surging in Britain, despite restrictions already in place in most of the country. On Tuesday, 53,135 confirmed cases were reported across Britain, marking the second record day in a row and a number far higher than any single day increase in the first wave.

More widespread testing may account for the new record in confirmed cases, but another number cannot be explained away: NHS England said Monday that a record 20,426 people were being treated for the virus in hospitals in England.

The previous peak number for those hospitalized was set during the first surge in cases in April at a little under 19,000.

Much of Britain, including London, is already under the highest level of lockdown: Tier 4 in the U.K. system. One senior adviser to the government said Tuesday that more of the country should be brought to this level “or higher” to “prevent a catastrophe in January and February.”

“I think we are entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic,” Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London, told BBC Radio 4.

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock is expected to announce any changes to restrictions Wednesday, the BBC reported. Hancock tweeted Tuesday that the pressure on the NHS was now “unprecedented,” and he asked everyone to work to suppress the virus during “these difficult times.”

Earlier this month, officials in Britain voiced concern over the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus that appears to spread more easily. The variant was first identified by British scientists this month, but it has since been found in a variety of countries.

More than 2.3 million cases of covid-19 have been confirmed in Britain since the virus first appeared in the country. More than 70,000 people have died, giving Britain one of the worst death tolls in the world.

Although there have been medical advances in treatment for covid-19, and the British government was the first in the world to begin a widespread immunization program of a fully tested vaccine, the virus appears to be spreading faster than lockdown measures can restrict it.

After almost a full year of fighting the pandemic, the toll is particularly hard on health workers. “This has probably been the toughest year that most of us can remember,” Stevens told reporters.

Simon Walsh, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s U.K. Consultants Committee, told the Press Association news agency that hospitals in the worst-hit areas of London were using the same sort of protocols expected in a “major incident.”

“They’re having crisis meetings; they’re calling on staff to come in to work if they’re able to on their days off,” Walsh said.

Health workers quoted in the media suggested that the government has mismanaged its staffing. During the first wave of the virus, the government used empty event spaces to build seven emergency Nightingale hospitals at a cost of 220 million pounds ($297 million).

However, the Daily Telegraph reported that the facilities have remained mostly empty during the new wave of the virus and that some were being dismantled because of shortages in staffing.

Health-care workers also complained that they were not being prioritized for vaccines, which are largely going to the elderly and those with underlying health problems at this stage of the British government’s rollout.

Batt-Rawden wrote Monday that many medical workers are getting sick from the new variant and that some hospitals are tweeting out messages asking for medical students to work in intensive care units.

“This is not a drill. Please believe us,” she tweeted, adding a hands-praying emoji.