The number of patients with coronavirus has almost doubled in the space of a week at Norfolk’s largest hospital, in the first sign of the strain that the Omicron variant could put on our health system.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) saw its number of patients with Covid increase from 20 on December 9 to 39 patients on Thursday.

These are patients who tested positive for Covid in the 14 days prior.

The biggest age group with Covid in the NNUH are no longer the elderly, but those aged between 25 and 34. That could reflect the fact that across the country cases are increasing most steeply among those in their 20s and 30s.

However, that age group is far less likely to need intensive treatment or die from the virus and just one patient was needing mechanical ventilation earlier this week.

Two patients with Covid died at the NNUH this week; a woman aged in her 80s, who had underlying health conditions, and a man in his 60s who did not, the hospital said.

The number of people testing positive has been soaring for the last week, but there is usually a couple of weeks delay between cases increasing and hospital admissions rising.

Up until last week, the number of Covid patients in hospitals was very low. They are still much lower than this time last year, however, this winter Norfolk hospitals have far less space as so many elderly patients are in beds waiting to be discharged into care homes.

The number of unoccupied beds in Norfolk hospitals is half the number it was this time last year.

As of Tuesday, the NNUH had 53 free beds, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital had 17 and the James Paget University Hospital had just two; that compares to 87, 19 and 49 respectively on the same date in 2020.

A spokesperson for the NHS in Norfolk and Waveney said: “We have robust and well-rehearsed plans in place should we experience a rise in Covid-19 hospitalisations this winter.

“Vaccination is the best defence against becoming seriously ill with coronavirus and we would urge everyone to book a jab as soon as possible to boost their immunity and help reduce the potential impact of Omicron on NHS services.”

Meanwhile, the number of Norfolk hospital staff absent for coronavirus-related reasons was 139 this week compared to 253 at the same time last year, however, the number of staff absent for other reasons had increased from 710 to 805.

The Times reported yesterday that NHS hospitals have begun cancelling operations as a result of staff shortages.