The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has declared an effective emergency in the capital as it grapples with a soaring number of coronavirus cases and hospitals struggle to cope with the influx of patients.
Khan declared a “major incident”, in his dual role as mayor and chair of the London Resilience Forum, after discussions with NHS London, local authorities, Public Health England and emergency services in the capital.
A major incident involves a particularly urgent or complex situation that requires coordination between emergency services. They have been declared in London previously for incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, and the terror attacks at Westminster Bridge and London Bridge.
Greater Manchester declared a major incident in August due to the spread of Covid.
The declaration does not formally give London’s authorities new powers, but provides for improved emergency coordination and gives extra impetus to any demands for help to central government.
It is also seen as an important symbolic step, emphasising to Londoners the gravity of the situation and the importance of them observing social distancing rules.
The formal definition of a major incident is something “likely to involve serious harm, damage, disruption or risk to human life or welfare, essential services, the environment or national security”.
With Covid cases in London now exceeding 1,000 per 100,000 people, Khan urged Londoners to stay at home.
In a statement, the mayor said he had declared a major incident “because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point. If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die.”
He said: “Our heroic doctors, nurses and NHS staff are doing an amazing job, but with cases rising so rapidly, our hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically.”
Khan has written to Boris Johnson to seek extra powers such as closing places of worship, and to require masks to be worn in crowded outdoor places, such as supermarket queues.
He is also asking for more financial support for people unable to work because they are self-isolating, and daily data on vaccinations.
London’s director of public health, Prof Kevin Fenton, also appealed for people to stay distanced.
“This is the biggest threat our city has faced in this pandemic to date,” he said. “In order to ease the burden on our hospitals, we must first stop the spread. That means we have to stay at home. Cut your contacts, reduce your movements, do as little as possible.
“A lot has been asked of Londoners over the past 12 months but your decisions and actions right now have never been more important.”
London has been the worst-hit area of the UK so far in the winter peak of Covid-19 cases.
Hospital statistics show that, between 30 December and 6 January, the number of Covid patients in the capital increased by 27%, with those on ventilators rising 42%. The current number in hospital due to Covid, 7,034 people, is 35% higher than at the peak in April.
The London ambulance service is taking up to 8,000 emergency calls a day, compared with 5,500 on a normally busy day.
Speaking alongside the prime minister at a Downing Street press conference on Thursday, Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said hospitals in London were receiving 800 Covid patients a day, the equivalent of the entire capacity of St Thomas’,one of the capital’s leading hospitals.