Boris Johnson is facing fresh questions about whether he acted too slowly in the run up to Christmas, after it emerged that almost a third of all the patients hospitalised with Covid in England to date were admitted in January.
NHS England statistics show there were 101,956 new Covid-19 admissions last month, accounting for 29% of all admissions between March 2020 and the end of January, underlining the severity of the latest wave of the virus.
The number of patients admitted to hospital increased by 79% between December and January.
The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, said: “The numbers of people needing hospital treatment for Covid last month is shocking and brings into sharp focus how devastating Boris Johnson’s dither over the new year lockdown was.
“This delay has proved shattering for families who lost loved ones. It’s all the more tragic because Boris Johnson made the same mistakes and ignored clear scientific advice yet again.”
When evidence emerged in December that the new Kent variant of the virus was more transmissible than its earlier form, the prime minister hastily scaled back plans for Christmas mixing – three days after accusing Keir Starmer of wanting to “cancel Christmas”.
But families in many parts of the country were still allowed to mix for a day, and pupils were allowed to return to school on Monday 4 January in areas not considered at high risk, before the prime minister ordered a full lockdown that evening.
It subsequently emerged that the Sage committee had warned on 22 December that it was “highly unlikely” that the R number – measuring the transmission of the virus – could be kept below 1 with schools open.
Challenged about whether he had made mistakes, including being slow to move towards the January lockdown, the prime minister said this month: “Of course I take full responsibility for everything, and all I would say, humbly and respectfully, to those who make criticisms of what the government and all our colleagues have been trying to do, is that in situations like this, where you have such very, very brutal and difficult dilemmas, there are no easy answers, and very often there are no good answers at all.”
Some of the NHS data provided some cause for optimism as the government prepares to weigh up when it can lift the “stay at home” order in England. The number of new admissions has been falling from a mid-January peak, according to the latest figures. The seven-day rolling average for 7 February shows there were 1,955 admissions, down from a peak of 3,812 on 12 January. It is the first time that the average has fallen below 2,000 since Christmas Day.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said the service remained under “significant pressure”, but added: “While the world’s attention has rightly been on Covid, NHS staff have worked extremely hard to provide essential services for those patients who need them, including 280,000 treatments for cancer patients along with millions of routine operations.”
Separate NHS figures covered key metrics on cancer treatment, which took a hit during the first wave of the pandemic. Cancer services continued to recover, with 25,199 people starting treatment in December, 555 more than in the same month the previous year. Data for December shows that the NHS was treating more patients than in December 2019 across several metrics.
However, a spokesperson for Macmillan Cancer Support said the full-year figures showed that 2020 was the worst year on record for cancer waiting times in England, in terms of performance against all nine key metrics, including the lowest number of people starting cancer treatment in England for 10 years.
“Whilst today’s data shows that a lot of cancer care continued in December, it rounds off 2020 as a devastating year for many people living with cancer who faced agonising delays or disruption to diagnosis and treatment, compounded with fears that this could impact their prognosis,” said Sara Bainbridge, the head of policy at Macmillan.