U.K. hospitals struggle as new coronavirus variant takes heavy toll

England’s National Health Service is accustomed to tough winters — and caring for people on overcrowded wards sometimes means moving patients into the corridor. But this is different. Now some are lucky just to get medical help as they wait in an ambulance in the parking lot.

Pressure on the nation’s hospitals forced the hand of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who plunged the country into its third national lockdown and ordered everyone to stay at home as much as possible for at least the next six weeks. The situation is worsening, said Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst of the King’s Fund think-tank.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that the (National Health Service) is going through probably the toughest time in living memory,” he told The Associated Press. Anandaciva said some emergency rooms have waits of 12 hours.

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“I was speaking to an emergency care physician from London last week, and she was saying that half of her shift was spent delivering care in ambulances because they couldn’t get the patients into the emergency department,” he said. “So you put that all together and you paint a picture of the health service that’s under incredible pressure.”

Johnson announced the tough new stay-at-home order for England that takes effect at midnight Tuesday and won’t be reviewed until at least mid-February. Few in England expect any relief until after the traditional late February school break.

“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet, but I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle,” Johnson told the nation Monday night. “Because with every jab that goes into our arms, we are tilting the odds against COVID and in favour of the British people.”

Scotland’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also imposed a lockdown that began Tuesday. Northern Ireland and Wales had already imposed tough measures, though rules vary.

U.K. COVID-19 variant explained

U.K. COVID-19 variant explained

Johnson and Sturgeon said the restrictions were needed to protect the hard-pressed National Health Service as a new, more contagious variant of coronavirus sweeps across Britain. On Monday, hospitals in England were treating 26,626 COVID-19 patients, 40 per cent more than during the first peak in mid-April.

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Many U.K. hospitals have already been forced to cancel elective surgeries and the strain of responding to the pandemic may soon delay cancer surgery and limit intensive care services for patients without COVID-19. Intensive care units are full and spilling over.

Public health officials hope the new lockdown will reduce the strains on the NHS while they roll out a national vaccination program that targets older people, health care workers and those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Britain has approved vaccine shots from two different manufacturers so far — one from Pfizer-BioNTech and the other from Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

The government hopes to give a first dose of vaccine to everyone in its top four priority groups, or 13 million people, by the middle of February, Johnson said.

Read more: Coronavirus: U.K. toughens COVID-19 rules due to “sheer pace” of new variant, PM Boris Johnson says

Coronavirus: U.K. toughens COVID-19 rules due to “sheer pace” of new variant, PM Boris Johnson says