London, United Kingdom – When the pandemic hit the UK in March last year, Peter wasn’t too worried about catching COVID.
“I was in good health and followed the restrictions closely,” he told Al Jazeera from his home in Sussex, a southeastern county.
The 55-year-old social worker says he hadn’t seen a doctor in 20 years and had only taken a handful of sick days in his 35 years on the job.
But in early April, he began to experience flu-like symptoms and his health rapidly deteriorated.
Within days, it became more and more difficult for her to breathe. Just over a week after his symptoms struck, he was strapped into an ambulance to Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton.
“Everything was going so fast. It was surreal. It was like looking down on myself, like watching someone on TV walking through it, ”he said.
At 5 p.m. he was rushed to a crowded emergency room and at midnight he was placed in an intensive care unit (ICU).
Peter and none of the patients around him could breathe on their own, relying on tubes in their throats to pump oxygen into their lungs from a ventilator.
“I was only able to cope because the staff were very understanding. They tried to keep me calm at all times, ”he said.
Every morning and evening, doctors and nurses informed him of his condition and the next steps in his treatment.
His wife was unable to visit him due to COVID restrictions, but they spoke on the phone daily. She would later recall how he used to speak “gibberish” during their conversations, which he only vaguely remembers.
Five days later, he was sent home, 30 pounds (13 kg) lighter, having completely lost his appetite.
“I was lucky that the virus did not reach a more dangerous level before going to the hospital,” he said. “It wasn’t too late.
Compared to when Peter went to the ICU during the first peak of cases in April, hospital admissions linked to COVID in England have increased by 62%.
The country currently has more than 30,000 hospitalized COVID patients.
On January 4, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced another national lockdown in England, closing schools and asking residents to stay in their homes for all reasons necessary except for a few necessary reasons, as a new, more contagious variant seized parts of the United Kingdom.
“This variant is not controlled by the measures that were in place before Christmas,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, calling the mutation “extremely worrying” for the UK and Europe. , where it is already spreading.
“While there are encouraging signs that the increase in infections could level off, the virus is still circulating at a very high level,” he said.
The seven-day average number of new cases has fallen to 48,565, down from 59,652 the previous week.
McKee blamed the latest peak on a “string of government failures.”
“They constantly delayed the implementation of the measures which were clearly necessary, which allowed the virus to run out of control.”
Dr Charlotte Summers, 46, an intensive care consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, works 17-hour shifts with full PPE, making the job “exhausting, hot and slower”.
She believes a July report from the Academy of Sciences outlining the challenges ahead and measures to alleviate the crisis “was not heard enough” by the government.
Summers, a member of the Intensive Care Society, a charity that supports intensive care staff across the UK, divides her time between researching COVID treatments and working in hospital. One day she is conducting laboratory experiments using models of human cells and the next she is caring for patients in intensive care.
The ICU, where the average death rate was 40 percent during the pandemic in the UK, is an “emotionally difficult environment,” Summers told Al Jazeera. “It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.
“Is it unhappy sometimes? Yes. Am I crying about it? Yes. Anyone who tells you that they are not spared the sheer horror of the pandemic is a lie. When we stop being moved by what we see, we stop being human.
“I see patients my age who don’t have any other disease that we can find. The idea that these are just frail elderly and that no one else has to worry about is not true.
The UK has the second highest number of virus deaths per million people in the world over the past seven days, after the Czech Republic. As of January 16, 88,747 people have died from the virus in the UK.
Challenges for the NHS
The increase in admissions combined with longer periods of time patients stay in hospital is pushing the NHS to the brink.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty wrote in the Sunday Telegraph on January 10 that the NHS is facing “the most dangerous situation in living memory”.
Some hospitals are currently overwhelmed.
“It is likely that we will experience major crises [in the health service] in parts of the country, ”McKee said.
Addenbrooke’s Hospital is currently providing 200 percent more ICU beds than before the pandemic. Summers says he turned a patient away from intensive care.
“It’s not that we have a large capacity. We have transformed other areas of the hospital into intensive care units. We are expanding our thinner resources and using staff from other sections to be able to cope. Of course, this has a huge impact on other services, ”she said.
Peter’s departure from the hospital was far from the end of his battle with COVID.
For over a month, he struggled to breathe regularly, struggled with severe fatigue and mental health issues.
His anxiety was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
“Before, I could handle stress without needing medication and I experienced trauma,” he said. “It’s like a switch flipped in my head.”
Falling asleep was often impossible and some nights he only slept for an hour.
It was not until September, five months after the onset of his symptoms, that he was able to return to full-time work.
Even today, persistent fatigue makes it necessary to take breaks during work.
He is not alone.
One in 10 people with COVID shows symptoms for 12 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of National Statistics. Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that people with COVID have twice the risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder.
But on Tuesday, Peter will join the 2.33 million people across England who received the first dose of COVID vaccination.
For him, like millions of people across the country, receiving the blow seems to mark a step towards a return to a normal life.
“I will feel a lot safer, especially knowing that people can get the virus twice.”