Scores of hospitals have been forced to close wards to new patients as they struggle to cope with the influx of norovirus sufferers.
One of London’s leading hospitals has even had to turn away 999 emergency patients after being overwhelmed with cases of the virus, while another hospital has drafted in GPs to cover for staff hit by the bug.
As the crisis deepens, health campaigners are warning that hospitals face going into “complete meltdown” over Christmas and New Year.
Last year more than three million people were struck down by the bug as it reached epidemic levels. Now experts are warning that the virus could affect even more this year.
It appears to be taking hold much earlier than usual.
Last night the Health Protection Agency warned that it was expecting the number of cases to escalate.
Geoff Martin, of the campaign group Health Emergency, said: “Christmas and New Year are a notoriously busy time and the fact that hospitals can’t cope already is very, very ominous. Winter and Christmas are always extremely difficult for hospitals.
“People giving germs to each other means more flu, the cold weather means a lot more respiratory problems, especially for the elderly, and everyone’s out drinking a lot so there are more injuries that way, too.
“The busiest period is still two weeks away and it is evident that hospitals can’t cope.
“If the Secretary of State for Health does not do something about this, there could be a complete meltdown and a full-blown crisis.
“It would be the worst I have seen in five or six years.”
At its height last year the virus, which causes projectile vomiting, diarrhoea, mild fever and headaches, was striking down more than 200,000 a week. The illness can prove deadly for the vulnerable – children and the elderly.
So far there have been 1,575 reported cases since July but officials fear the figure could be 100 times higher as most sufferers do not report it. St George’s hospital, one of London’s three major trauma centres, was forced to turn away ambulances last Monday because it had run out of beds.
Hospital chiefs said they had suffered a 14 per cent surge in demand over the weekend, compared to the same time last year.
Patients had to be diverted to neighbouring hospitals, all of which have reported serious pressure on their capacities.
A survey by the Daily Express found that hospitals across the country were, on average, each shutting off between eight and nine wards to new admissions and visitors.
At least 21 hospitals have had to isolate patients.
Last week the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital closed all its 49 wards because of the virus, which had directly affected 12 wards including the isolation unit. Three wards at Gloucester Royal hospital were closed last Friday following a norovirus outbreak.
GPs were being drafted in to fill in for affected staff and admissions were slowed because of a shortage of beds.
The University Hospital of North Staffordshire lost about 130 beds, or 12 per cent of its capacity, when it sealed off six wards in an attempt to stop the bug spreading.
In the Midlands, Coventry’s University hospital closed seven wards, while George Elliot hospital in Nuneaton lost the use of three wards and four staff were struck down.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “Hospitals will have plans for dealing with the virus.
“We know wards have been closed to admissions. This will help to control outbreaks.”