They said pressure was increasingly spreading to hospitals outside London, with those in the north-east and Yorkshire reporting the most rapid growth in Covid patient numbers in recent days.
According to reports, around 50,000 NHS staff were absent from work last week because they were ill or self-isolating,
NHS chiefs also expressed cautious optimism that after weeks of rising hospitalisations in London – the centre of the Omicron outbreak – the increases may have peaked and are starting to level off.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services, told The Guardian: “We were seeing increases in the number of Covid-19 patients in London hospitals go up by 9 per cent a day, 15 per cent a day … in terms of 27, 28 and 29 December.
“Interestingly, in the last two days the increases have only been 1 per cent and 2 per cent, so they’ve dropped pretty significantly, so there’s a hope we might have seen a possible peak and plateau.”
One of the UK’s biggest care home operators called on the government to lift visiting restrictions after it recorded one Covid death in the last fortnight. Four Seasons Healthcare, which operates 165 care homes, said close to 4,000 residents were living under strict lockdowns because of outbreaks.
Hopson cautioned that the biggest challenge facing many NHS trusts was mounting staff absences.
United Lincolnshire hospitals NHS trust declared a critical incident with “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages resulting in “compromised care”, the newspaper report added.
Critical incidents are declared by NHS trusts when they believe they may no longer be able to provide a range of critical services.
Declaring an incident enables local health chiefs to call for help from staff and other organisations, and creates a formal interim emergency governance structure to make prioritisation decisions at speed, for example redeploying staff or reprioritising services.
Joe Harrison, the chief executive of Milton Keynes University hospital, said while his trust was not yet declaring a critical incident, he expected the “very pressured” situation to get worse before it got better.
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents the healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, issued a stark warning that many parts of the health service were “currently in a state of crisis”, in a blog post.
“In the face of high levels of demand and staff absence some hospitals are having to declare a critical incident,” he wrote. “Some hospitals are making urgent calls to exhausted staff to give up rest days and leave to enable them to sustain core services. Many more hospitals are having to ban visitors to try to reduce the spread of infection.”
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has written to ministers calling for further measures in England amid “confusing and concerning” differences in restrictions across the UK.
Parliament will return from its Christmas recess on Wednesday (5), when the cabinet is set to meet to review the plan B rules. Ministers are expected to keep restrictions – including mask wearing, Covid passports and home working – as they are.