Hospitals are under “extreme pressure”, the chief executive of NHS England has warned, with one coronavirus patient admitted “every 30 seconds”, as the foreign secretary said the government aims to offer a first vaccination to the entire adult population of the UK by September.
Sir Simon Stevens said that the health service had never been in a more precarious position.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, he said: “The facts are very clear and I’m not going to sugarcoat them: hospitals are under extreme pressure and staff are under extreme pressure.
“Since Christmas Day we’ve seen another 15,000 increase in the inpatients in hospitals across England. That’s the equivalent of filling 30 hospitals full of coronavirus patients.
“Staggeringly, every 30 seconds across England another patient is being admitted to hospital with coronavirus.”
The pressure on the NHS has led to three out of four ambulance staff being at “breaking point”, suffering low morale and calling for better protective equipment, a new study by the GMB union has shown.
“In 24 years in the ambulance service I’ve never ever seen staff sat on station at the start of the shift so frightened (almost to tears) to go out on an ambulance,” one response read.
GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said: “This cannot go on – something has got to give.
“Ambulance staff are going off sick in droves while the service collapses around them, despite their heroic efforts.”
“A massive 93 per cent are crying out for better protection. The PPE they are given just isn’t fit for purpose, and is a massive factor in why the situation is so desperate.”
A further 38,598 lab-confirmed coronavirus cases were recorded on Sunday, and 671 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
Dominic Raab told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show that blanket vaccination could be completed earlier if the capacity is available to do so.
But government sources said that reports of a private target of the end of June to get a jab to all over-18s were “speculative”.
The government has previously committed only to offering a first dose of vaccine by mid-February to all over-70s, elderly care home residents, health and care workers, and people with serious underlying health conditions.
But the foreign secretary told Marr: “The plan is to get the first 15 million most vulnerable people vaccinated with the first dose by the middle of February.
“We then want to get by early spring another 17 million. At that point we’ll have 99 per cent of those most at risk of dying of coronavirus administered with a vaccine.
“The entire adult population we want to have been offered a first jab by September.
“That’s the roadmap. We think we’ve got the capacity to deliver it.
“Obviously, if it can be done more swiftly than that, then that’s a bonus. The number one thing right now is to protect that roadmap and rollout and protect the NHS, given the new variants that we’ve seen.”
Sir Simon told Marr that the health service was now vaccinating at a rate of “140 jabs a minute” and will start testing 24/7 vaccinations in some hospitals in the next 10 days.
Sir Simon said he expects lockdown to be eased gradually around spring and summer time.
He said: “It is not going to be the case that on Valentine’s Day, with one bound, we are free.
“Equally, I don’t think we will have to wait until the autumn. I think somewhere between those two.”
But he warned that this forecast was subject to uncertainty around new variants of the coronavirus – particularly any that showed signs of resistance to available vaccines.
Mr Raab said the government hopes to start easing lockdown restrictions as early as March, but said measures would be eased gradually, rather than withdrawn overnight in a “big bang”.
He told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “What we want to do is get out of these national lockdowns as soon as possible.
“The roadmap that I described is that by early spring, hopefully by March, we’ll be in a position to make those decisions.
“I think it’s right to say we won’t do it all in one big bang. As we phase out of the national lockdown, I think we’ll end up phasing through the tiered approach.
“We want to make sure that we can do it in a safe way. But again, we’ve got to, at this point in time, really focus on protecting the NHS and rolling out the vaccine. If we do those two things, we get into a much better place by early spring.”
More than 3.5 million people in the UK have now received their first dose of a vaccine, and some 324,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines were administered in the space of 24 hours.
Leading epidemiologist Professor Azra Ghani said a combination of low case numbers and having vaccinated the most vulnerable would be needed before restrictions could be eased.
She told Sky: “Really, we want to get back to the situation we were in in the summer, with relatively low case numbers compared to now, so that we can actually test and trace and reduce onward infections.
“At the same time we’re, of course, rolling out a vaccine; that’s something we haven’t had up until now and that vaccine rollout is going very well.
“That will hopefully protect those that are most vulnerable to the severe consequences of this disease.
“We’ll need to get a balance of these two things in place before we can start to lift restrictions and it’s very difficult to say exactly when that will be.”