Every morning, Declan Gregg covers himself from head to toe in PPE — mask, goggles, gloves and a full gown — before climbing into an ambulance and heading to the first call of the day.
An Australian paramedic based in Crawley, south of London, he knows the first job will inevitably be a coronavirus patient. As will the next job, and the one after that.
Hospitals across the United Kingdom are overflowing as case numbers and deaths soar to new records every day, with the mutant, more transmissible strain of the virus spreading rapidly.
“In the last four weeks it has just gone crazy; almost every patient I go to now is a coronavirus case,” said Mr Gregg, who began working in the UK in April 2017.
The ambulance service he works for, on England’s south-east coast, had its busiest day on record on Boxing Day.
“It’s gotten to the point now where [at] some hospitals, you take a patient in and you’re sitting in the ambulance outside the hospital for about three hours just waiting for a bed to become available because they’re just so rammed now,” he said.
UK health secretary Matt Hancock has warned the pandemic is now at its “worst point”, with the country’s death toll climbing above 80,000 and new case numbers reaching around 50,000 a day.
Mr Gregg said he had lost count of the number of people he knew who were now part of that daily tally.
He also knows people who have died from the virus, including a colleague who passed away on his 52nd birthday and is believed to have caught the virus while working at a hospital.
“Most of the people I know at work have contracted the virus,” he said.
“It’s tough … it’s not just the fact they’ve contracted the virus, it’s the months after.
“Some of my colleagues say they still can’t get a full breath even if they’re sitting down.
“A lot of people are off sick because we’re so highly exposed; the infection rate amongst staff is massive.”
Mr Gregg has avoided contracting the virus so far, but is extremely concerned as the risk increases each day.
“It’s not just a week or two of feeling under the weather, it’s months,” he said.
“I think like everyone else at the start I didn’t realise how bad it was. But as time’s gone on I am pretty scared about getting it now.”
Temporary mortuaries set up
In Surrey, a county south of London that has one of the highest infection rates in the UK, a temporary mortuary has been opened as hospital facilities reached capacity.
When announcing the latest lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said hospitals were under “more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic”.
Last week, the number of patients in UK hospitals had jumped more than 30 per cent in one week, and were 40 per cent higher than the peak during the country’s first wave last April.
Currently, about one in 50 people across the UK is infected.
“We really rely on each other a lot to get through it, now more than ever before,” Mr Gregg said.
“It is tough at the moment … it is stressful, it’s busy … but I do love my job.”
Many across the UK have hung their hopes of emerging from this pandemic on a vaccine, with the government setting the ambitious target of having offered a vaccine to every adult in the country by September.
Mr Hancock said 2.3 million people have now had either a Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and they’re on track to have inoculated some 15 million people by mid-February.
But Mr Gregg said public opinion around the vaccine was telling a different story, and he was frustrated to see many people still sceptical to get vaccinated.
“I have hope now the vaccine is finally coming out, I just really urge people to actually take the vaccine,” he said.
Australians warned about UK travel
A leading infectious diseases expert has warned Australians should not expect open travel to the UK this year.
Professor Peter Collignon from Australia National University said travel would likely remain limited to special circumstances, and even those who were vaccinated should expect to quarantine after they returned.
“I think in the short-term for this year, if you come back from any area where there is a lot of COVID, you will probably have to assume you will have to keep away from others for 14 days,” he said.
“Because look at … London at the moment — one in 30 people have the virus.
“If you have a vaccine that is 90 per cent effective, and most probably won’t be that good, you still have … people who will come back with the virus.
“So we will need restrictions on people coming back from high prevalence areas, I think, even if they are vaccinated, until we get a lot more data and we’ve got different information.”
Mr Johnson has faced mounting criticism over his government’s handling of the pandemic — specifically, its slowness to act and its constant revision of lockdown measures.
He has acknowledged the public’s frustration with the latest strict lockdown, but said he believed the country was entering “the last phase of the struggle”.
Meanwhile, the public is urged to adhere to the current restrictions.
“This is everybody’s problem,” England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said.
“Any single unnecessary contact you have with someone is a potential link in a chain of transmission that will lead to a vulnerable person.”