Hospitals across the UK have been forced to close more than 70 wards because of the worst outbreak of winter sickness and vomiting virus in five years.
The norovirus is infecting staff, patients and visitors and is causing some hospitals to interview the sick before they are admitted.
It is estimated that 100,000 people a week are catching the extremely contagious bug, which causes diarrhea and vomiting and lasts about three days. The Royal College of GPs predicts the number will double when children return to school and the infection spreads.
So far more than 2 million people in the UK have picked up the virus, which has no effective treatment and is transmitted by contact with an infected person, by consuming contaminated food or water, or by contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.
Outbreaks are common in semi-closed environments such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools and cruise ships.
Visitors to hospitals were warned again to wash their hands first with soap and water then to use the alcohol gel provided on wards.
Lisa Dunn, a hospital director at the Heart of England NHS foundation trust, said many people were ignoring pleas by nurses to wash their hands, believing that the gel would be enough to help prevent the spread of the norovirus.
“We are finding that there is confusion with visitors in hospitals,” said Dunn. “People want to use the gel and we are having to explain to them that they need to physically wash their hands, not just use the gel.”
He added: “The gel helps with things like MRSA – norovirus needs soap and water.”
The Health Protection Agency said the virus season had started uncharacteristically early compared with other years. Most cases go unreported, and the agency estimates that for every reported case there are 1,500 others.
People suffering any of the symptoms of the virus have been asked by the Royal College of GPs to keep clear of hospitals and stay at home for 48 hours after their last symptoms.
Twenty-six beds across 11 wards have been closed due to the virus at the 600-bed Royal Oldham hospital, a spokesman for Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS trust said, with about 40 patients admitted suffering from the bug yesterday, a fall from the 60 admissions the day before.
At the trust’s other hospitals, three beds at Fairfield hospital in Bury have been closed following infection prevention measures, and 10 beds at the North Manchester general hospital are out of use.
Wards in Scotland, including five at Victoria infirmary in Glasgow, have been closed.
Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS trust said it had decided to cancel all routine, elective inpatient surgery at its three hospitals until at least January 9.
The trust’s chief executive, John Rostill, said the Worcestershire Royal hospital, Redditch’s Alexandra hospital, and Kidderminster hospital were all under “unrelenting pressure”.
Rostill said the large numbers of people with diarrhoea and vomiting being admitted had reduced the number of beds available and the trust’s capacity to carry out non-emergency operations.
A spokesman for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust said six wards had been closed to new admissions at Leeds general infirmary and St James’s hospital. In some cases only parts of the wards had been closed.
A ward at Eastbourne district general hospital in East Sussex was closed after nine patients showed symptoms of the virus.
Bath’s Royal United hospital has also been badly affected, with seven wards closed since mid-November.