On an evening shift in a busy London hospital last week, intensive care nurse Dave Carr came across a senior doctor standing next to a vending machine.
She was crying, he recalled, and when he asked what was wrong, she simply said she could not decide if she wanted a cup of tea or coffee.
It was a tipping point at the end of a long, hard shift.
For Dave Carr, the moment typified the strain all British medical staff are under as hospitals struggle to cope with the alarming surge in COVID-19 patients.
A senior nurse, he’d retired in April last year but was back in the ward three days later to assist as the first wave of COVID-19 took hold.
Now, he’s coaxing his staff through a “horrific” second peak of the pandemic.
“I’m really fearful of this virus,” he said, describing how the number of intensive care beds had tripled in some hospitals.
Normally, he explained, one intensive care nurse tends to one patient, but now they are caring for up to three.
“We are now fighting for the lives of patients that have come to us in a way that we don’t think we should have to if they handled the pandemic properly, we are exhausted already and it’s not even the peak,” he told the ABC.
“It’s constant and it’s relentless and we have been doing this since March and now, with the way the pandemic has been handled, we just don’t know where it is going to end.”
Hospitals strain under coronavirus load
When witnessed first-hand, the scene outside the Royal Hospital in London is confronting.
Backed up around the perimeter of the hospital and emergency entrance are ambulance after ambulance.
They even park on the footpath as they queue and wait for the next call out, or arrive back with the sick onboard.
As the ABC filmed outside the hospital, a paramedic backed his vehicle into a pole, smashing the tail-lights.
It’s a sign of the strain they’re all under, his colleague explained, as demand on their service continues to soar.
The ABC has been told of some cases where patients have died in ambulances as they wait outside emergency wards.
‘We’ve never seen anything like this’
In December, Boris Johnson had promised his nation five days of frolicking Christmas fun, now he is leading a nation with a hospital system on the brink of collapse.
Breast surgeon Rebecca Lewis, who is the Secretary of the UK Doctors Association, told the ABC that since Christmas, overwhelmed medical staff have not been able to provide the care they’re trained to.
“We knew this was coming and we didn’t do what we needed to do to stop it,” she said, warning the pressures will peak in mid-January, around two weeks after the Christmas break.
“I’ve been a doctor for 15 years, we’ve never seen anything like this before, any of us, and we’re worried about our colleagues, our patients, how we’re going to deal with this.”
The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show one in 50 people are now infected with the virus in the UK, one in 30 in London, and more than 30,000 COVID-19 patients are jammed into the nation’s hospitals.
How did the UK get to this point?
So how did Britain find itself in a position where hospital beds could run out in a fortnight?
Boris Johnson was right when he said the new faster-spreading variant, first found in Kent in September, was a game changer.
In a few short months it has destroyed the government’s containment strategy, spreading at least twice as quickly, initially through south-east England and in London.
In the past week, it’s that variant that has seen infection numbers soar beyond 60,000 a day across the nation.
But critics also point to repeated, lacklustre government action, missteps and U-turns.
Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operation unit at the University College London, described the British Government’s approach as “constantly incremental”.
“There are not many countries doing worse than us right now,” Professor Pagel said of the UK, arguing the Government had moved too slowly to counter the spread of the disease at every stage of the pandemic.
On three occasions — in March, September, and December — Boris Johnson delayed introducing nationwide lockdowns despite his own scientific and medical advisers urging him to do so.
When the infection rate did drop to manageable levels after the first UK lockdown ended in May, the British Government launched its “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme and urged people to get back to work.
It later admitted that resulted in a resurgence of the disease.
As the summer ended, Boris Johnson ensured the nation that schools and universities were safe, and kept them open until his major backflip last week.