Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam has said some hospitals treating coronavirus patients could experience "isolated" problems with their oxygen supply as they deal with the enormous challenge of meeting the "unprecedented demand with this virus".
"This disease is unlike anything I've seen in my almost three decades in medicine, he said at the government daily briefing on Friday, in response to a question from BuzzFeed News. "It is really, really unusual in that the requirement for patients who are hospitalised to have oxygen is very high."
He said it had been a logistical and engineering challenge to create thousands of extra intensive care beds with ventilators and the oxygen supply that goes behind them.
"I do know that there has been absolutely enormous logistic work 24/7 behind the scenes to keep hospitals supplied with oxygen," Van Tam said, "but you're right, we have seen one or two reports of where something has gone slightly wrong with an oxygen supply, and that's partly about the stress on the whole engineering system of a hospital that is required to produce the oxygen demands for double the number of ventilators, and we have to learn as we go along and our engineers have to adapt.
"You are going to see these isolated incidents, and we'll learn from them, but oxygen supply, you're right to flag it, it's an unprecedented demand with this virus."
His comments come after BuzzFeed News reported that frontline medics treating coronavirus say they are being told to ration oxygen in hospitals. In conversations with BuzzFeed News and in discussion groups online, they described wards unable to admit further patients, oxygen saturation targets for patients being lowered, staff being told to ration oxygen for patients on ventilators, and in some cases being told not to use nasal high-flow oxygen or give oxygen treatment to palliative care patients.
NHS England said oxygen tanks were “fuller than normal” and that there was “sufficient oxygen supply available”.
But Simon Walsh, the British Medical Association’s lead on emergency medicine, told BuzzFeed News the issue was likely not the total amount available, but that hospitals are limited in the amount of oxygen they can deliver, as each system has a "flow rate" that must not be exceeded.
However, heath secretary Matt Hancock insisted there was enough capacity in the system to deal with the extra demand.
He told reporters at the briefing: "The truth is that in all the challenges in oxygen supply that Professor Van Tan has just set out, in all cases, there has been available ventilated oxygen to be able to treat those who need it, and in fact we have currently over 2,000 spare beds with ventilators, so we have spare capacity, and in fact the spare capacity is currently going up faster than need so the overall capacity is going up faster than need, so the space capacity is increasing."
The health secretary said that any decision to reduce an individual patients' oxygen levels would be taken by doctors for clinical reasons only.
Speaking after the UK recorded its largest single day death toll so far, with 980 people losing their lives to the virus in hospitals, Hancock also reiterated the government's instruction to people to stay at home over the Easter weekend, saying: "The message is very clear, there is enough capacity in the NHS to look after you no matter if you catch it, how serious it gets, but it's very important that we don't allow the spread of the virus to accelerate."