Calls are mounting for the Government to ensure NHS staff are prioritised for Covid-19 tests as latest figures show a surge in the number of patients in hospital with the virus.
Ministers have been told health workers should come first when trying to access rapid tests amid concerns over staff shortages linked to Covid-19.
There were 11,898 Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals as of 8am December 29, according to Government data – an increase of 44% compared to the previous week, and the highest number since March 2.
In addition, there has been a 34% week-on-week increase in Covid-19 UK hospital admissions – with 1,152 on December 24, the latest date for which data is available.
In England alone, the number of patients in hospital has climbed to its highest level since February.
A further 189,213 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK as of 9am on Thursday, the Government said, another new record for daily reported cases.
The total included reported figures for Wales covering a two-day period.
NHS Providers chief Chris Hopson reportedly warned that daily data on Covid-19 hospitalisations should be interpreted with care.
He told the Times that the absence of large numbers of seriously ill older people was providing “significant reassurance”, although they could change after the Christmas period.
Mr Hopson added: “Trust CEOs know that the government has a high threshold to cross before it will introduce extra restrictions and can see why, in the absence of that surge of severely ill older people, that threshold hasn’t been crossed yet.”
The latest data comes as the Government said it has met its target of offering every eligible adult in England a booster jab by the end of the year.
However, health leaders have warned up to 40% of booked appointments are no-shows, and some vaccination clinics are only a third full.
Meanwhile, concerns persist over difficulty accessing Covid tests across the country.
The public has faced issues ordering online tests in recent days, while pharmacies have also complained about patchy supplies of lateral flow kits.
Boris Johnson is expected to reiterate calls on Friday for people to take a test before going out to celebrate the New Year.
In a message due to be posted on social media, the Prime Minister will say: “As I speak tonight on New Year’s Eve, we’ve met our target, we’ve doubled the speed of the booster rollout, and it’s precisely because of that huge national effort that we can celebrate tonight at all.
“Though I must of course urge everyone to be cautious and to take a test if you are going out and to remember the importance of ventilation.”
In a letter to MPs, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the supply of lateral flow tests was being tripled in January and February from a pre-Omicron plan of 100 million to 300 million per month.
However, he said ministers expect a need to “constrain” the system at certain points over the next two weeks.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the British Medical Association (BMA) said health workers should come first when trying to access the rapid coronavirus tests in a bid to ease staffing issues.
The BMA said there were more than 18,000 staff absent from acute hospital trusts in England, either with Covid-19 or because they were self-isolating, adding that it expected the figure to be much higher when the most recent data is published later this week.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA chair of council, said: “The Government has pledged that eight million lateral flow kits will be sent to pharmacies before New Year’s Eve.
“That’s a step in the right direction but there is no assurance that key workers will be offered them first.
“The BMA is urging the Government to do everything possible to ensure that enough tests are available for key workers as a priority.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting also called for NHS workers to be put “at the front of the queue” for tests.
In a tweet, he said: “Shortages of tests and delays in getting results risks exacerbating the staffing pressures in the NHS and other critical national infrastructure.
“I’ve written to the Health Secretary urging him to make sure that they’re at the front of the queue.”
On Thursday, the Welsh Government announced it would loan England four million lateral flow tests, bringing the total the country has given England to 10 million.
First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “Wales has a significant stock of lateral flow tests, sufficient to meet our needs over the weeks ahead.”
The Welsh Government also said a booster vaccination appointment has been offered to every eligible adult in the country.
As of Friday, more than 1.5 million boosters have been administered in Wales, with 81% of over 50s and 70% of eligible people aged over 12 receiving their third jab.
In England, unlike other parts of the UK, nightclubs remain open and there are no limits on social mixing.
The NHS Covid Pass is required for entry to nightclubs but this can be obtained by people who are double-jabbed, rather than requiring proof of a negative test.
The latest daily figures also show a further 332 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
This includes a backlog of hospital deaths reported by NHS England covering the period of December 24-29.