THE NHS faces an "exceptionally difficult" winter even if Covid remains at bay, Prof Chris Whitty warned today.
England's top doc said flu and other seasonal bugs mean medics will be swamped regardless of the pandemic.
But he stressed that only a tiny amount has to go wrong with coronavirus for hospitals to buckle under a flood of cases.
In a bleak forecast, he said: "I wish I could claim that there's sunlit uplands and it'll be fantastic by Christmas – but sadly I'm afraid that is not the case."
Infection rates are hovering at around 40,000 per day but vaccines have dampened current daily hospitalisations to flatline at around 700, and deaths at around 100.
A vaccine campaign for vulnerable Brits to get their flu jabs alongside their Covid booster is currently underway.
But raising the alarm at the Royal College of GPs annual conference, Prof Whitty said: "In terms of where Covid will go over the winter, well I think the winter as a whole, I regret to say, is going to be exceptionally difficult for the NHS.
"That is, irrespective of whether we have a relatively low but non trivial amount of Covid, or whether we actually have a further surge in the winter."
He said Britain's health service was on a much better footing than last year and only "an extraordinary escape mutant variant" would blow a hole in the progress.
However he warned: "But we could certainly go up, we're only two to three doubling times away from a really quite serious pressure on the NHS and it's already serious, but one that actually will be very difficult to deal with.
"So the margin of error is quite small."
He added that hopes of completely eradicating Covid this winter was an "impossible dream" and said the NHS faces an "extraordinarily tall order" to tackle the backlog of appointments that piled up during lockdown.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned the backlog could rise to as high as 14million.
Prof Whitty also defended politicians from critics making "cheap shots" during the pandemic.
He said: "It's important that I don't whack my professional colleagues in the political and policy spheres on this.
"I think they genuinely, in all political parties – but the Prime Minister and ministers in power obviously have the responsibility – did try to understand the scientific advice, and then they tried to work out how you could turn that into a policy that worked more generally."
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