Health services face a tough three months over the winter period as new coronavirus vaccines will only have a “marginal impact” on hospital numbers, the UK’s four chief medical officers have warned.

In a letter written to colleagues, the four said that festive gatherings were likely to put additional pressure on healthcare services.

The chief medical officer of England, Professor Chris Whitty; of Scotland, Dr Gregor Smith; of Wales, Dr Frank Atherton; and of Northern Ireland, Dr Michael McBride, all signed the letter.

The letter read: “Winter is always a challenging time for the NHS and wider health and social care service. This year will be especially hard due to Covid-19.

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“Although the very welcome news about vaccines means that we can look forward to 2021 with greater optimism, vaccine deployment will have only a marginal impact in reducing numbers coming into the health service with Covid over the next three months.

“The actions and self-discipline of the whole population during lockdowns and other restrictions have helped reduce the peak and in most parts of the four nations hospital numbers are likely to fall over the next few weeks, but not everywhere.

“The social mixing which occurs around Christmas may well put additional pressure on hospitals and general practice in the New Year and we need to be ready for that.”

HeraldScotland:

Dr Gregor Smith

The letter praised health workers for responding “magnificently” to the challenges of the pandemic and stressed the importance of continuing support for others within the profession.

But it added that it was “essential” that the next months were used to learn more about the virus to help inform treatments.

“We do not expect Covid to disappear even once full vaccination has occurred although it will be substantially less important as a cause of mortality and morbidity,” it said.

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“It is therefore absolutely essential that we use the next months to learn as much as we can as we expect Covid to be less common in the future.

“This will allow us to have the best chance of a strong evidence base for managing it over the coming years.”