Chris Hopson, chief executive at NHS Providers which represents hospitals and other health trusts, told MPs that demand on the NHS was now expected to peak in February with a “higher level and a more extended period of pressure”.
Appearing before the Commons health and social committee, he was asked by chairman Jeremy Hunt about the level of pressure on the frontline in hospitals at the moment.
He told the MPs that the situation was “incredibly serious” and was expected to get worse as the virus is now spreading so fast outside of London and the South East, cases were likely to go down more slowly than in the first wave and the crisis was predicted to peak later than recently thought.
His comments sparked suggestions that the lockdown may have to be tightened to get the disease under control more quickly.
Many hospitals in London and some parts of the South East are already struggling to cope with a surge in Covid admissions with Mayor Sadiq Khan declaring a “major incident” in the city last week.
The sharp rise in cases in the capital, which was fuelled by the new strain of the virus, has shown signs of slowing, but outbreaks are now spiralling in other parts of the country.
Mr Hopson said: “The latest information over the last few days really shows three really quite worrying trends.
“The first is that it seems now pretty clear the infection rate is not going to go down as quickly as it did in the first phase and it is going to go down more slowly because of the increased transmissibility of the new strain.
“The second thing is that infection rates, we have talked a lot over the last few days about London and the South East, and East of England, but what is very clear is the infection rates are now rising really very rapidly beyond those areas in the Midlands, North West and the South West.
“That is a particular worry because trusts in the Midlands and the North have got signficant numbers of patients still in hospital from the second surge, and in the South West because of its smaller bed base we know it’s less able to absorb pressure than the other regions.
“It now looks like the peak for NHS demand may actually now be in February.
“If that is right, that is going to basically mean there is a higher level and a more extended period of pressure on the NHS than we were expecting even just a week ago.
“We are now considering in the NHS a series of emergency, contingency arrangements which would maximise the NHS capacity available in the areas under greatest pressure.”
Almost half of the hospital deaths in England and Wales registered during the last week of 2020 involved coronavirus, new figures show.
There were 3,144 deaths registered in the week ending January 1 which mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, the Office for National Statistics said.