NHS Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate are being asked to get ready to take patients. Government advisers say admissions are rising, with more elderly people needing urgent treatment for coronavirus.
More people are now in hospital with Covid than before restrictions were announced in March. It comes as a new three-tier system of lockdown rules for England has been announced. From tomorrow (Wednesday), the Liverpool City Region will face the tightest restrictions under the new three-tier system which will classify regions as being on "medium", "high" or "very high" alert.
Liverpool recorded 600 cases per 100,000 people in the week ending 6 October. The average for England was 74. But England's deputy chief medical officer said the rise in coronavirus cases was now being seen "nationwide" and was not solely a problem for northern England.
Cases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been increasing too. Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the "marked pick-up" that the country was seeing would lead to more deaths and he warned that coronavirus was spreading from younger age groups into the over 60s who are more vulnerable. Hospitals have not yet reached capacity, but the NHS may have to use some of the temporary critical care Nightingale hospitals if demand continues to rise, say the advisers.
Most of the Nightingales, set up in the spring as an insurance policy in case the NHS became overwhelmed, were never used. NHS England's medical director Prof Stephen Powis cautioned that it would take "a number of weeks" before the benefit of any extra measures - such as shutting pubs - would be seen in bringing hospital admissions down.
"In the over-65s - particularly the over-85s - we are seeing steep rises in the numbers of people being admitted to hospital so the claim that the elderly can somehow be fenced off from risk is wishful thinking," he said.
He said NHS staff working in the parts of England with the highest Covid rates would be offered regular tests to check if they had the virus.