UK hospitals stagger as new virus variant takes huge toll

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A man crosses the street backdropped by the Royal Exchange in the City of London financial district in London, Jan. 5, 2021, on the first morning of England entering a third national lockdown since the coronavirus outbreak began. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday night announced a tough new stay-at-home order that will last at least six weeks, as authorities struggle to stem a surge in COVID-19 infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals around the U.K. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON – Britain is facing a long, bleak winter as cold, wet weather and a more contagious variant of the coronavirus put unprecedented strain on the nation's hospitals and force record numbers of patients to wait 12 hours or more, sometimes on ambulance gurneys, before receiving treatment.

That picture made Prime Minister Boris Johnson order a third national lockdown that started Tuesday and requires everyone in England to stay at home for at least the next six weeks except for exercise, medical appointments, essential shopping and a few other limited exceptions.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that the (National Health Service) is going through probably the toughest time in living memory,″ said Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst of the King’s Fund, a U.K. think tank that focuses on health and social care. “I was speaking to an emergency care physician from London last week, and she was saying that half of her shift was spent delivering care in ambulances because they couldn’t get the patients into the emergency department.″

England's previous nationwide lockdown ran from Nov. 5 to Dec. 5. In announcing the new stay-at-home order, Johnson said it won’t be reviewed for lifting until at least mid-February. By that time, the government hopes to have given one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to about 13 million people who are most at risk, potentially allowing some relaxation of the restrictions.

Under the latest lockdown, schools and outdoor sports facilities are closed along with bars, restaurants, hair salons, gyms, theaters and most shops.

“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet, but I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle,” Johnson told the nation Monday night. “Because with every jab that goes into our arms, we are tilting the odds against COVID and in favor of the British people.”

Scotland's leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also imposed a lockdown that began Tuesday. Northern Ireland and Wales had already imposed tough measures, though rules vary. Each nation in the United Kingdom controls its own health policy under the country's system of devolved government.

Johnson and Sturgeon said the restrictions were needed to protect the hard-pressed National Health Service as a new, more contagious variant of coronavirus sweeps across Britain. On Monday, hospitals in England were treating 26,626 COVID-19 patients, 40% more than during the first peak in mid-April.