THE number of coronavirus patients in hospital has risen 22 per cent in just a week – to the highest level ever.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock tonight warned the highly-contagious mutant strain of Covid is putting the NHS under significant pressure.
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Since Christmas Day there are 13,000 more patients in hospital with Covid-19 in England – and has increased by a third since.
Mr Hancock echoed England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty in saying "we're at the worst point in this pandemic" at tonight's Downing Street press briefing.
He said: "The NHS, more than ever before, needs everybody to be doing something right now – and that something is to follow the rules.
"I know there has been speculation about more restrictions, and we don't rule out taking further action if it is needed, but it is your actions now that can make a difference.
"Stay at home, and please reduce all social contact that is not absolutely strictly necessary. That's what is needed: act like you have the virus."
Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England, warned that the UK is yet to see the impact of allowing households to mix at Christmas.
Speaking at No10 tonight, he said: "Less than a fortnight into 2021 the number of people in hospital with Covid has already gone up by a third, a rise of around 8,000."
He said that infection and death rates remain "stubbornly high" with hospitals under "significant and sustained" pressure.
He said that even the South West has more people in hospital now than the entire country combined did at the end of September, and the country has still not seen the full impact of the Christmas loosening of restrictions.
He urged everyone to stick to the rules and "keep focus and resilience" as a country.
In more positive news, detailing the Government's vaccination roll out plans, Mr Hancock said two fifths of over-80s have now received their first dose.
It comes after Boris Johnson announced that around 2.4 million vaccines for Covid-19 have now been put in people's arms.
However, the Prime Minister stressed "now is the moment for maximum vigilance" amid increasing calls for tougher lockdown restrictions as case rates soar in several parts of the country.
During a visit to a vaccine centre in Ashton Gate Stadium, Bristol, the Prime Minister said: "We're going to keep the rules under constant review.
"Where we have to tighten them, we will.
"We have rules in place already which, if they are properly followed, we believe can make a huge, huge difference.
"It's now that people need to focus… when they're out shopping, whether they're buying cups of coffee in the park or whatever it happens to be, they need to think about spreading the disease."
Mr Johnson said that "more important than us just pushing out new rules", people should follow existing guidance.
"In supermarkets, people need to be keeping their distance, making sure that they're wearing masks, doing the right thing.
"We need to enforce the rules in supermarkets. When people are getting takeaway drinks, in cafes, then they need to avoid spreading the disease there, avoid mingling too much.
"Now is the moment for maximum vigilance, maximum observance of the rules.
"Of course, if we feel that things are not being properly observed then we may have to do more."
Turning to vaccines, the Prime Minister said roughly 40% of the 80-year-olds in the UK have now been vaccinated, with around 23% of the elderly residents of care homes having been inoculated.
He said around two million people overall have received a vaccine and "maybe a bit more".
He added: "We're at about 2.4 million jabs all in across the whole of the UK."
Among those calling for tougher lockdown rules is Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who told reporters the country is "at the most serious stage" of the pandemic "and that calls for the most serious restrictions".
Sir Keir said: "There probably is more that we could do.
"An example is the question of whether nurseries should be open."
It comes as Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, warned the UK has not yet hit the peak of the current wave of Covid-19 infections, with the next few weeks being "the worst" of the pandemic for the NHS.
He said the vaccine rollout offered hope that lockdown restrictions could be lifted in the coming months but described the current UK death and case rate as an "appalling situation".
During a BBC phone-in on the current high case rates, he said: "I don't think we're yet at the peak, I'm afraid.
"I think we will be at the peak if everybody can double down and absolutely minimise their contacts.
"The point of the lockdown is to bring that forward, but it only works if everyone really thinks about every individual interaction they have and try and minimise them."
Prof Whitty said the new variant of coronavirus was causing a "significant problem", telling BBC Breakfast: "We will get through together but at this point in time we're at the worst point in the epidemic for the UK."
Currently, around one in 50 people in England is infected.
Prof Whitty said: "There's a very high chance that if you meet someone unnecessarily they will have Covid."
He added: "This is the most dangerous time we have really had in terms of numbers into the NHS at this particular time."
Asked if coronavirus is being spread outdoors, Prof Whitty said the risks were much lower than for indoors, but said problems could occur if people gathered in groups, such as huddled round a market stall.
Pressed on whether people should wear masks in all outdoor settings, he said the most important thing was actually that people stayed home unless their journey was essential.
"I think that the much more important thing is that people should not be leaving their home unless they absolutely have to," he said.
"And where they do, try and keep their distance from people."
He added: "In a sense tinkering with the rules may be useful, but the far more important thing is that everybody abides by the spirit of the rules that are there at the moment."
It comes as seven mass vaccination centres open across England in a drive to ramp up the rollout of coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
The Government aims to hit a target of vaccinating around 15 million people at highest risk of death and severe disease by the middle of February.
The new centres – including at a football stadium and a tennis club – will be joined later this week by hundreds more GP-led and hospital services along with the first pharmacy-led pilot sites, taking the total in England to around 1,200.
Overall there will be 2,700 vaccine sites across the UK, according to the Government vaccine rollout plan.
The document sets out plans to vaccinate at least two million people a week, with ministers pledging that "tens of millions will be immunised by spring".
It also suggests that "those delivering key public services" and others at high risk of exposure could be next in line for the vaccine once the at-risk priority groups have been vaccinated.
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