Non-Covid care will suffer if lockdown restrictions are eased and virus infections surge, health chiefs have warned ministers.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital and ambulance trusts, said that even a small increase in cases would lead to “trade-offs between Covid and non-Covid care”.
He told Times Radio: “We know that if we do open up, there will be higher levels of hospitalisation and mortality, and are we prepared to accept that risk?
“Hospitals are very, very busy at the moment, they are incredibly busy, worryingly busy. And therefore if we do see even small numbers of Covid patients, we will have to make some trade-offs between Covid and non-Covid care.”
Under their timetable for ending lockdown, ministers hope to lift all restrictions and social distancing on June 21.
Venues such as theatres and restaurants would no longer have to enforce the one-metre-plus rule from that date. The rule of six for indoor gatherings and the 30-person limit on events including weddings would be lifted, while nightclubs would be allowed to reopen.
However, ministers are considering delaying the easing of restrictions by several weeks because of the spread of the Indian variant of the virus.
Hopson said: “We don’t quite know where we are in terms of, are we at the beginning of an exponential rise or not?”
But he added that vaccines had “broken” the link between cases and the “very high level of hospitalisations and mortality we’ve seen in previous waves”.
Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “Across our hospitals staff are facing pressures much like those seen in mid-winter, with bed occupancy levels well above 90 per cent, which is dangerous and unsustainable.
“This is before we face any further rise in Covid patients, which would lead to a third wave for the south but, as it seems is often overlooked, a fourth for those in the north.
“The worry is that hospitals are on a knife-edge but not necessarily a Covid one, with acute units on the brink due to very high numbers of patients being admitted due to chronic illnesses that have taken their toll over past lockdowns and, in many cases, are due to an inability to access urgent primary care.”
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said today: “We do think it important we don’t throw away the gains we have made, so we will take a cautious approach.
“It’s a finely balanced decision,” he told Sky. “We need to see that data of cases, which are clearly rising, but [also] the link to hospitalisations and ultimately to death.”