Cases of Covid-19 are estimated to have more than doubled in less than a month – with nearly three million people believed to have had the virus in the week ending 28 December, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Case rates were even higher in Northern Ireland, where one in 16 people were infected, the largest outbreak in the region since March, according to Michelle Bowen, head of health surveillance at the ONS.
Coronavirus infections rose across all four UK nations and most English regions over Christmas, Ms Bowen said, with case rates sitting at one in 25 in Scotland, and one in 18 in Wales – also the highest since July.
With cases rising in the over-50s, the proportion of people being admitted to hospital with the virus also increased to its highest level since October in the week to Christmas Day – but decreased slightly in the following seven days.
Just shy of 6,000 people entered English hospitals with coronavirus in the week to 2 January – a fall of 6 per cent on the previous week, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Of the 9,332 hospital patients with Covid on 4 January, there were 212 who required beds with a mechanical ventilator, the UKHSA said.
While widespread vaccination has hugely reduced the risk of serious illness and death from coronavirus, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve there were 873 people who died within 28 days testing positive.
It comes as the NHS grapples with one of the toughest periods in its 75-year history, with the crisis engulfing A&E departments blamed by medics for as many as 500 deaths a week.
Official NHS data on Friday showed record numbers of ambulances queuing outside emergency departments, with 26 per cent of patients waiting more than an hour to enter hospital in the last week of 2022 – up from 10 per cent a year earlier.
In the run-up to Christmas, excess deaths hit a two-year high, ONS figures showed on Thursday – with approximately 2,500 more people dying than usual in the week to 23 December.
The presidents of the Society for Acute Medicine and Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh warned this week that it had “never been more concerned about standards of acute medical care across hospitals in the UK than we are now”.
NHS Confederation chief Matthew Taylor that warned “weary” staff were managing “crisis conditions with inherent risks to patient safety”, with hospitals “desperate to free up beds” – as figures showed 93 per cent were occupied last week – including nearly 13,000 by patients ready to leave.
Thanking healthcare staff for their efforts, NHS England’s national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said the health service was facing “record demand” including “enormous pressure from flu and Covid”.
An average of 5,105 flu patients were in general hospital beds last week, according to NHS data, up 47 per cent on the previous week and nearly seven times the number at the start of December.
Patients in critical care beds have also jumped sharply, up 26 per cent week-on-week from 267 to 336. At this stage last winter, just 38 patients were in hospital with flu and only two in critical care.
Speaking to broadcasters in London on Friday, Rishi Sunak said: “The NHS is obviously under enormous pressure as we recover from Covid and I have enormous admiration for all the people working incredibly hard in the NHS right now to help get us through that.
“We are supporting them with billions of pounds of extra funding but in particular this winter what we want to do is make sure we move people out of hospitals into social care, into communities – that is one of the most powerful ways we can ease some of the pressures on A&E departments and ambulances that are waiting too long.”