Professor James Chalmers, a consultant respiratory physician at Dundee University’s school of medicine, warned the health service is already “under massive pressure, even taking Covid to one side”.
But with record numbers of cases now being recorded in the UK and in Scotland – where 16,857 new infections were announced on Thursday – Prof Chalmers said he is “really concerned” about the impact this will have on the NHS.
Despite progress being made over the last 12 months with vaccination and more treatments for Covid becoming available, the arrival of the new, rapidly spreading Omicron variant has resulted in a situation that the expert said “unfortunately feels very similar to last year”.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Prof Chalmers said: “At the moment through December we have seen very high case numbers, as we did last year, and we only started to see that feed through in Scotland to very high numbers in hospital in the later part of December and the early part of January.
“We’re starting to see an increase in the number of people in hospital in Scotland, we’re above 800 people in hospital at the moment with coronavirus, nationally hospital admissions have risen by 61 per cent across the UK.
“So there are unfortunately similarities with last January. We are expecting, based on Government modelling, a substantial wave of hospitalisations through January and February.”
While he said Omicron “does seem to be a bit of a different beast”, with less severe illness meaning people stay in hospital for a shorter period of time, Prof Chalmers added: “Unfortunately the number of cases are so high the sheer volume of cases may cancel out any reduction in severity that we are seeing with this virus.”
Coronavirus isolations also mean “there’s a lot of staff absences, there’s a lot of gaps in rotas”, he said.
Prof Chalmers continued: “There’s a lot of pressure on people to adapt to sudden changes in work responsibilities because so many people at the moment are having to isolate.
“There is a very high workload of what you would call routine winter care, non-Covid care, because people haven’t stopped becoming ill and this year we haven’t had a lockdown, which means things like other circulating viruses have not reduced and not gone away.
“So the NHS is under massive pressure, even taking Covid to one side.
“Then there has been a persistent pressure from Delta and now from Omicron of continuous hospital admission. So the NHS is really struggling at the moment and I am really concerned about how it is going to fare when the hospitalisation numbers for Covid really increase in January and February.”
With the peak in hospitalisations not expected to hit until “about a month from now”, Prof Chalmers told how the NHS is struggling with absences and an “exhausted” workforce who have “battled this virus for two years”.
As a result, he said: “I really do think we need to take every measure we can to protect the NHS over the next couple of months.”
He urged Scots to comply with restrictions to cut socialising and stay at home as much as possible, even over the new year period.
But despite warning the health service faces a “really difficult beginning of the year”, Prof Chalmers added he is “hoping for a much brighter future”.
He said: “I do genuinely believe we are closer to the end of this pandemic than the beginning in terms of where we are in Scotland, we have better treatments, we have vaccines, I believe the Omicron wave will pass and there will be a very high level of immunity within the population.
“Whether other variants will emerge I don’t know, it is very likely that they will but they may well be still prevented from causing severe disease by the amount of immunity that has been built up in the population.”