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As MPs overwhelmingly approved regulations for England’s four-week lockdown beginning today, Mr Hancock admitted the pandemic’s ferocity meant millions could be in peril unless collective action was taken.
He stressed there was a very “real risk” of hospitals having to turn seriously ill people away if staff were swamped by rising Covid cases.
Mr Hancock said: “Without action to bring R [the virus growth rate] below 1, no matter what we did to expand the NHS and protect the vulnerable, and we have done so much here, the NHS would be overwhelmed.
“This would mean we could no longer guarantee that solemn promise to every citizen of this country, that our National Health Service will be there for you when you need it.
“We must not let that promise be broken.”
Midnight saw NHS England move to its highest alert level in anticipation of a “serious situation ahead” amid a rise in virus patients needing intensive care.
It has emerged there are now “22 hospitals’ worth” of Covid patients in England, which means that health services could soon be stretched to breaking point.
And more grim news followed yesterday, as the UK recorded another 492 coronavirus deaths, up from 397 on Tuesday and the highest number since May.
The cumulative toll for those who have died within 28 days of a first positive Covid test now stands at 47,742.
Meanwhile another 25,177 coronavirus cases were recorded, up from 20,018 on Tuesday. Mr Hancock said the virus represented an “extraordinary threat” to Britain’s health and prosperity.
He begged the public to bite the bullet and where possible, stay at home to prevent the virus spiralling out of control.
Mr Hancock’s assessment echoed that of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who yesterday warned Parliament of deaths “on a grievous scale” without further action to stem the spread of infections.
Mr Johnson said he was “not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people” after being confronted with worsening data.
Hours later – and despite a Tory revolt – MPs backed a second lockdown by 516 to 38, a majority of 478, in a Commons vote. From today, the fresh set of lockdown restrictions mean people will be permitted to leave home only for education, exercise, or work if they are unable to do so from home.
Essential shops will remain open and click and collect services will continue, but non-essential shops and leisure and entertainment venues will shut.
Hospitality, including pubs and restaurants, will close their doors, except for takeaway and delivery services.
NHS England’s chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the health service wanted to be there for everyone, including non-Covid patients.
But he warned the public: “The truth, unfortunately, is that if coronavirus takes off again, that will disrupt services.We’re seeing that in parts of the country where already hospitals are dealing with more corona-virus patients now than they were back in April.”
Sir Simon added: “The reality I think, is that there is no health service in the world that by itself could cope with corona-virus on the rampage.”
Mr Johnson has insisted England’s lockdown is due to end on December 2, but it could be extended if MPs believe further restrictions are necessary to curb the spread of the virus.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the country’s healthcare sector, gave his backing to the month-long shutdown and said the public must play its part.
He said: “The NHS is at a critical point and increasing numbers of severely sick Covid patients in England’s hospitals illustrate just how busy frontline teams are and why the national lockdown is essential.”
Mr Mortimer added: “The NHS remains open for all of the public’s health needs but will again need their support in following the national guidance on social distancing and infection control to give it a fighting chance of continuing todeliver the same levels of non-Covid care.”
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