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NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has announced that the health service will be placed on level 4 alert from midnight – meaning that pressure on hospitals and other healthcare services across England are in danger of being seriously compromised.
NHS guidelines described Level 4 as "pressure continues to escalate leaving organisations unable to deliver comprehensive care".
There is also "increased potential for patient care and safety to be compromised" and, according to the health service's alert system, "where multiple systems in different parts of the country are declaring Level 4 for sustained periods of time and there is an impact across local and regional boundaries, national action may be considered."
In a press conference from University College Hospital, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon said the health service has prepared "very carefully" for the "next phase of coronavirus".
He said that, for some patients, mortality in hospital and intensive care has "halved since Covid was first known to humanity".
But he added: "However well-prepared hospitals, the NHS, GP surgeries are, it is going to be a difficult period."
He said: "We want to try and ensure that the health service is there for everybody, minimising the disruption to the full range of care that we provide, not just Covid but cancer services, routine operations and mental health services.
Warning northern NHS hospitals 'will have to start moving patients' to other parts of UK
"And the truth, unfortunately, is that, if coronavirus takes off again, that will disrupt services.
"We are seeing that in parts of the country where hospitals are dealing with more coronavirus patients now than they were in April."
He added: "The best way we enable the health service to look after all the people who need our care … this, by the way, is what is meant by that slogan 'Protect the NHS', what it means, I think, is help us help you by ensuring (we) are able to offer that wider range of care."
He said that "other lines of defence such as actions individuals are taking to reduce the spread of the virus and the Test and Trace programme" are needed, adding: "The reality is that there is no health service in the world that by itself can cope with coronavirus on the rampage.
"That's why it is so important that we reduce infections across the country."
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