Much younger patients are becoming very ill very fast, says a New Zealand nurse working in Britain on the frontline of the response to the new UK variant of Covid-19.
Yesterday the UK reported 1564 new deaths within 28 days of a positive test for Covid-19, a record daily toll. More people have now died in the UK in the second wave of the pandemic than during the first wave last year.
The increase in cases is being driven in part by the new more infectious UK variant of Covid-19.
There have now been almost 85,000 deaths in the UK - the fifth highest figure globally - and 3.2 million have tested positive for Covid 19.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said yesterday there were about 32,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals, about 70 per cent more than during the peak of the first outbreak last April, and the risk of intensive care units being overwhelmed was substantial.
One of the people working in those units is New Zealander Hayley Reid, who is an agency intensive care nurse. She works one-day contracts in ICUs and can be at multiple hospitals in one week.
She told RNZ the situation now was unbelievable.
Normally there would be one nurse to one patient, currently she is dealing with two patients but she is hearing "horror stories" of nurses handling five intensive care patients in a shift. Last week she was at a hospital where all the nurses were handling three patients each, which didn't leave any time to even go to the toilet.
"So it's like running for an aeroplane every second of a 12-hour day. It's non-stop. There's not enough time in the day - just multi-tasking the entire day just to get the essential jobs done."
One excellent hospital she is working at offers support to staff each morning and managers advise that the nurses will have to make decisions about patients that "might go badly" because things "change in an instant" in intensive care.
"So they say whatever choice, whatever decision we make they're going to support us because in intensive care our decisions sometimes are the difference between life and death so it's pretty stressful."
While the stress eased a little over the northern hemisphere summer, medical staff have been mostly working under intense pressure since Easter last year.
Reid said at times she feels frightened. She has a "fancy mask" which she takes everywhere and that makes her feel safer.
Second wave hitting younger people
Reid said the second wave of infections was affecting different patients to the first. The first wave were older patients with medical histories. Now, much younger people, including some in their 30s, some who are pregnant, are being admitted.
"They deteriorate and get incredibly sick so fast it's hard to keep up.
"So it is frightening because our decisions are so important and people, when they can't breathe they can't talk, so they just look at you, begging for help, begging to save them and you can't always."
While some theatres in the National Health Service are being maintained, other surgery has largely stopped because equipment such as ventilators is needed for Covid patients.
However, there was a general policy of not placing people in induced comas and not putting them on ventilators, which meant more patients were conscious and able to "absorb the stress" the nurses were feeling.
Patients also witness the last hours of others as there were "deaths every day".
"The patients know the risks and they're terrified and they can't have any support."
No family are allowed on the wards unless a patient's death is imminent.
No Covid-19 instructions at UK airport
Reid said with the UK being an island, there was some decision-making that had gone on that had contributed to its dire situation. A friend of hers arrived in the UK from Italy 10 days ago and when she landed there was no Covid-19 announcement, no leaflets, no reminders about quarantine or mask-wearing.
"So there's not enough being done, which is really frustrating."
While many Britons were unaffected, so did not feel a responsibility to comply with Covid-19 restrictions, there were other families where several members were in hospital, she said.
Asked why she remained when she could have returned to New Zealand, she said she had been in the UK for quite a while and "my life is here at the moment although New Zealand is looking more desirable".
Reid will receive her first vaccine shot on Monday. She said complacency about the vaccine might be a risk in New Zealand because it has not been affected in the same way as countries like the UK.
"They don't understand the stress of it, the urgency. Life seems to go on in New Zealand."
She urged New Zealanders to be vaccinated because it was not only for themselves but also provided protection for their families, neighbours and everyone else.