Patients waited in ambulances outside hospitals for record times across England in the week before the new year, as Covid-19 infection rates and flu hospitalisations soared over Christmas.

About 1 in 20 adults in England had Covid-19 over Christmas, more than doubling from the week ending December 9, with even higher rates in Wales and Northern Ireland, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Cases of coronavirus are at their highest level since July 2022 in England, Wales and Scotland, and since March 2022 in Northern Ireland.

The “twindemic” of Covid-19 and flu is putting pressure on the UK’s already stretched NHS this winter.

An average of 44 per cent of ambulances waited at least half an hour because of delays in handing patients over to hospital staff in the week ending January 1, according to data from NHS England. Over a quarter of ambulances were left waiting more than an hour.

On the worst day, December 28, around 49 per cent of ambulance handovers were delayed by at least half an hour.

The influenza season is hitting hospitals far harder this winter than in 2021. Flu cases in hospitals rose by almost half in the past week, with 5,105 patients in general and acute hospital beds, and 336 in critical care beds.

Over the same period in 2021, there were 38 flu cases in general and acute beds, and just two in critical care.

The number of patients in hospital with Covid rose by almost 1,200 in the week up to January 1, to a daily average of 9,390.

Soaring Covid-19 infection rates may lead to an increase in hospitalisations for weeks to come, as there is usually a lag between patients getting infected and the disease becoming severe enough to require hospital treatment.

The proportion of the population with Covid-19 in England rose from 2.2 per cent the previous week to 4.5 per cent in the week ending December 28, while in Northern Ireland it increased from 2 per cent to 6.4 per cent in the seven days up to December 22.

Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director for England, said that plans announced last autumn would help ensure the health service was in the “best place possible to provide care for patients at this incredibly challenging time”. 

More than nine out of 10 hospital beds are occupied, with almost 13,000 taken by people who are medically fit to be discharged, but remain in hospital due to a shortage of available places in the social care sector.

Powis said that the NHS was making “good progress” towards its target to add the equivalent of 7,000 extra beds by March.

The UK Health and Security Agency, the health protection body, saw a dip in the number of people testing positive for flu and Covid. But it warned that this could be due to delays in data collection over Christmas.

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