Covid Scotland: Record number of patients in hospital as restrictions eased
Some 2,128 people were reported in hospital with Covid on Monday, breaking the previous record of 2,053 set in January.
Several health boards have said they are facing higher pressure than at any other point during the pandemic, due to high numbers of Covid patients, delayed discharges, and high rates of staff absence.
And one council warned soaring Covid rates could see the return of remote learning. Dumfries and Galloway council said Covid-related staff absences had led to “very challenging” situations for “a number of our schools and early years settings”.
Jillian Evans, head of health intelligence at NHS Grampian, said the past two weeks had been the “worst we've ever experienced”, and that things were expected to get even worse in coming weeks despite predictions that case numbers have now peaked.
Asked whether NHS Scotland would cope, she said that was a “difficult question to answer”.
It comes as all legal Covid restrictions apart from the wearing of face coverings were eased in Scotland from Monday.
Businesses such as bars and restaurants are no longer required to retain customer contact details, and the legal requirement for businesses, places of worship and others to “take reasonably practicable measures” has also ended.
Infection levels in Scotland are estimated to be at a record high.
One in 14 people had the virus in the week to March 12, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey, the highest infection level since the survey began in autumn 2020.
Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an expert in coronaviruses at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute, said it was “very likely” Scotland saw the peak of the latest Omicron wave last week, and case numbers may now begin to decline.
The continued restrictions in Scotland have not been particularly effective at stopping the spread of the now-dominant BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, she said, as it is so transmissible it can spread despite cloth face coverings, or in settings where they do not have to be worn.
She said she believed it was the correct decision to maintain face covering rules in Scotland for an extra two weeks, as they offer some protection and do little harm, but she expects this to be repealed after the Scottish Government reviews its decision next week.
By then cases will have begun to decline, she said, and the spring weather would reduce risk with more outdoor activity.
Ms Evans agreed case numbers may soon decline, but the pressure on hospitals “doesn’t seem to be letting up at the moment”.
NHS Grampian is regularly going over maximum hospital capacity during the day, she said.
It comes after NHS Lanarkshire, which is also seeing the worst conditions it has ever faced, issued a fresh alert this month as all three of its acute hospitals exceeded maximum capacity.
Hospitals are battling to cope with high numbers of Covid patients, backlogs of non-Covid care and large volumes of delayed discharges – patients who have no clinical need to be in hospital, but cannot be discharged as there is nowhere for them to go.
This has got worse recently, Ms Evans said, as many care homes are facing Covid outbreaks, and there are even higher than usual shortages of staff in social care.
The NHS is also facing high staff absences, which is further increasing pressure.
Remaining staff are exhausted and burnt out after two years of the pandemic.
“This feels like the worst it’s going to get,” said Ms Evans, adding she expects numbers of hospital patients to increase for the next few weeks.
She added: “There is no question, we are not out of the woods.
"We will see and feel the effects of this Covid wave for a number of weeks to come, even if case numbers peak soon.”
Ms Evans said she hoped the NHS would be able to cope, but feared this would lead to an increased toll on less urgent patients being de-prioritised.
“My instinct is that we will get through it, as hard as it is and as painful as it is for all the people who work on the front line,” she said.
“We are so resilient and we are so adaptable that not coping really isn't really in our nature. I think we will, but inevitably if things become so tight you are literally maxing out capacity, then you have to further prioritise care.”