Published: 16:50, 14 January 2021
| Updated: 16:54, 14 January 2021
The number of Covid patients in hospital in Kent is more than double the peak of the first wave of the virus.
Figures released today reveal there were up to 1,334 people with coronavirus in hospitals run by the county's four biggest NHS trusts in the first week of 2021.
That compares to 532 in April last year, at the peak of the first wave.
The highest numbers of patients with the virus were reported on January 3 and 4. The figures have since fallen but not by much and the increase has been mirrored by a rise in deaths, with a record daily total of 95 reported by hospitals in the county.
The most up to date information available is for January 7 when there were 1,234 Covid patients in hospital beds in Kent.
At East Kent Hospitals - which includes Ashford's William Harvey, Kent and Canterbury and Margate's QEQM - there were 432 patients, 32 of which were on ventilators.
That compares to peaks of 187 and 35 during the first wave.
At Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, which manages two hospitals, the figure was 308 and 24, compared to April peaks of 98 and 25.
Medway Maritime had 248 patients, including 15 on ventilators, against 136 and 27.
And there were 246 patients, with 13 on ventilators, at Darent Valley, compared to peaks of 111 and 20 in April.
The surge in coronavirus cases continues to put the NHS under intense pressure and pictures of queuing ambulances at Medway Maritime Hospital on December 28 highlighted the stress the system is under.
It comes at a time when hospitals are facing huge staffing problems, with 1,672 staff across the six NHS trusts in Kent absent on January 6 due to either testing positive for Covid or self isolating.
While the level of absence remains much lower than during April, when more than 2,500 members of staff were off work, it still represents a considerable proportion of the workforce.
There is also a capacity issue, after a county-wide bed shortage left some seriously-ill coronavirus patients needing to be transferred as far as 250 miles for treatment.
Patients fighting the virus have been moved to Plymouth, Bristol and Leeds.
Across the country, critical care beds increased from 5,400 in 2011/12 to 5,900 in 2019/20, although that figure has increased further since the start of the pandemic.
Despite that, bed occupancy at critical care units across Kent and Medway reportedly reached 137% on New Year's Day. All general ward and acute beds at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells were full on December 31 and January 4.
Some beds have been opened up in other areas of hospitals, but the situation is now at crisis point with nursing ratios said to be at one for every four patients.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has suggested day-time occupancy rates for general and acute beds frequently exceed 100% as more than one patient can use a bed in any 24-hour period.
The number of hospital beds in England has more than halved over the past 30 years from around 299,000 in 1987/88 to 141,000 in 2018/19 - though the number of patients treated has increased significantly, a study by the Kings Fund found.
Its report also determined "the UK has fewer acute beds relative to its population than many comparable health systems".
Cuts in capacity have largely fallen in the mental health and learning disability sectors as a result of successive political policies which has seen in-patients moved from hospitals to community settings.
In 1987/88 there were 180,000 acute and general hospital beds in England. By 2019/2020 this decreased to 100,000.
In contrast, in 1974, the health service maintained almost 400,000 beds.
Medical advances and innovation, including day case surgery, are credited with reducing the need for overnight stays, resulting in a growth from around 2,000 beds in 1987/88 to about 12,800 in 2019/20.
An average length of stay in hospital has also fallen from 8.4 days in 1998/99 to 4.5 in 2018/9, meaning more people are able to be treated.