Britain on Tuesday registered a new daily high of more than 53,000 Covid-19 cases, as concern mounted about spiralling numbers of positive tests and pressure on health services.
The latest figures – 53,135 new cases in the last 24 hours – come as the government is under pressure to introduce tighter restrictions, including delaying the return to school.
More than 24 million people, or 43 percent of England alone, are already living under strict stay-at-home measures, with bars, restaurants, pubs and other entertainment closed.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is due to update Parliament on Wednesday about whether to tighten the screw further, as hospitals enter their busiest period during the winter months.
Samantha Batt-Rawden, a critical care doctor who is also president of the Doctors Association UK, said medical staff were at "breaking point", with oxygen and equipment shortages.
"We are incredibly thin on the ground. NHS [National Health Service] staff have not been prioritised for the vaccine and are going off sick in droves with the new strain," she said.
"[Hospital] trusts are so desperate they are tweeting out for medical students to help in ICU," she tweeted, urging the public to follow guidance to stop the close-contact spread.
The latest statistics painted a grim picture of the upsurge in cases, which comes despite stringent measures in place since earlier this month.
A total of 2,382,865 people have now tested positive, and a further 414 deaths were recorded within 28 days of a positive test, taking the country's toll to 71,567.
Health chiefs said there were now more patients in hospital in England than during the initial peak of the outbreak in April, with a new strain blamed for the rise.
NHS England figures showed there were 20,426 Covid patients in the country's hospitals on Monday, more than the previous high of 18,974 peak on April 12 during the first wave.
Testing is now much more extensive, which could account for the high numbers. But the true picture is likely to be worse, as not all four countries of the UK reported over Christmas.
"Many of us have lost family, friends, colleagues and – at a time of year when we would normally be celebrating – a lot of people are understandably feeling anxious, frustrated and tired," said NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens.
"And now again we are back in the eye of the storm with a second wave of coronavirus sweeping Europe and, indeed, this country."
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who survived Covid after having spent several days in intensive care, has been under pressure for his response to the outbreak.
Government advisor Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases at University College London, said "decisive, early, national action" is now needed to prevent "a catastrophe" in January and February.
Britain is pinning its hopes on its mass vaccination programme, with the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab expected to receive approval shortly, according to reports.
More than 600,000 people had received a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from December 8-20, the Health Ministry ministry said on Christmas Eve.
"We think that by late spring with vaccine supplies continuing to come on stream we will have been able to offer all vulnerable people across this country Covid vaccination," said Stevens.
"That perhaps provides the biggest chink of hope for the year ahead."
Health trusts have been told to begin planning for the use of Nightingale field hospitals, the temporary facilities created during the first wave that have largely gone unused.
London and southeast England are currently bearing the brunt of the outbreak, with paramedics in the capital saying they are receiving up to 8,000 emergency calls each day.
London Ambulance Service said Boxing Day – December 26 – was one of its "busiest ever days".
The resurgence of the outbreak has hit Premier League football giants Manchester City, leading to the postponement of their game with Everton on Monday night. Rumours circulated on Tuesday that Fulham's upcoming trip to Tottenham Hotspur may also be postponed, after a number of cases were diagnosed.