Extra patients are being squeezed into already full bed bays at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) as it declares its highest alert level.

In a step described by chief nurse Professor Nancy Fontaine as "extreme", a seventh bed is being jammed into rooms with only enough space for six.

It means the same number of staff can look after more patients, but it also means those patients will be just 90 centimetres apart.

It comes as the entire health system in Norfolk and Waveney was put on its highest alert level, meaning it has no spare capacity.

Erika Denton, NNUH medical director, said: "The hospital is full and we have already taken steps to increase bed capacity in response to high emergency demand and a record number of Covid-19 infections that has led to a surge in admissions."

Seven into six

In an email sent to staff at the end of last week, Professor Fontaine outlined the "extreme measures" the NNUH needed to take to deal with the "unprecedented pressure".

Describing, how a seventh bed would be placed into six-bed bays, she admitted it was "far from ideal", but said patients were waiting hours for an ambulance and unable to get into the hospital.

Bed bays at the NNUH have three beds on two sides of the room divided by curtains which are fixed to the ceiling.

But the curtains between beds are being replaced with a screen, meaning a fourth bed can be put up against the window. As the two-metre social distancing rule will have to be broken, patients will be told to wear masks and the window will be kept open.

Each bed has its own oxygen and suction attached to the wall, but that seventh patient will not have that.

Staff said they were not aware of the hospital taking such a step before and raised concerns about infection with patients being so close to one another.

Professor Fontaine said it would only be for a "short period" and added in the email: "In the current ‘battle’ situation and under extremis, I beseech you to support me through this difficult operational request."

She said it was safer for patients to be brought into hospital then be left waiting for ambulances or in the back of ambulances queuing outside.

The email added that the plan had been shared with health regulator, the Care Quality Commission.

A hospital spokesman said the measure was put in place at the end of last week across the hospital's wards and would be for as short a time as possible.

How many Covid patients are in hospital?

Latest figures show the number of Covid patients in East England hospitals has almost doubled since Christmas from 672 on December 24 to 1,250 on Monday.

Covid patient numbers are still well below the peak of last winter, however, there are just as many patients overall in hospital meaning the extreme pressures on the NHS remain. Many of those are well enough to leave but because of the crisis in social care have nowhere to go. At the NNUH, for example, 170 patients, are waiting to be discharged into care homes and community care.

At the NNUH there are 91 patients with Covid and 16 of those are being treated on so-called “virtual wards”, meaning they are not actually in the hospital. Instead, they are at home being monitored for things like oxygen blood levels.

Nationally Covid patients in hospital has also doubled since Christmas Eve.

But those infected are not getting as ill as last winter and many of them are much younger. The biggest age group in the NNUH for example is aged 25 to 34. Only two at the NNUH are in critical care.

Mrs Denton told ITV Anglia: "Norfolk is usually a few weeks behind London (for Covid infections). I'm not convinced we've peaked. I think we have another week or two of Covid pressure alongside suppressed latent demand for other aspects of healthcare."

At the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston there were 24 Covid patients and 28 at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn. At West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds, 16 patients had Covid as of December 27.

Staff sick

It comes as figures from last week show 1,100 staff at Norfolk’s hospitals were off sick. More than 312 either had Covid or were self-isolating, while 801 were off with other illnesses.

Those figures only go up to December 26 and data released later this week is expected to show a jump in that number.

The last time staff absences were this high was in February 2021 when the country was coming out of the worst of the Covid winter wave. During that time staff absences at Norfolk hospitals peaked at just over 1600.