• Stress test taking place to decide roles for different hospitals
  • Trust bosses also decide how to segregate within their own hospitals
  • Hospitals also told to ban all but “essential” visitors

Some NHS hospitals may be used to exclusively treat coronavirus patients in the coming months as system leaders prepare a profound reconfiguration of NHS services to cope with the covid-19 outbreak.

NHS bosses told MPs at an evidence session today they were carrying out a “stress test” exercise this week to determine which hospitals would be used for what, and to ensure resources and sites were used optimally across the system.

NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens also told the Commons health and social care committee hospitals should ban all but “essential” visitors to hospitals as part of a dramatic range of measures being rolled out by the NHS immediately.

The raft of measures, set out in guidance sent to hospital bosses today, also included the suspension of non-emergency elective procedures for around three months as part of an effort to free up 30,000 beds.

Sir Simon told the committee: “At the height of the epidemic here it is likely that every NHS hospital will be looking after coronavirus patients, and it is possible some hospitals will almost exclusively be looking after coronavirus patients.

“There are some places we may choose to deploy, frankly, the entirety of the hospital for coronavirus patients.”

Keith Willett, NHS England’s incident director for covid-19, told the MPs a stress testing exercise this week would also help “work out the sequence of wards that are best placed to be the cohorted wards for the patients with coronavirus” and how areas such as EDs would be segregated from these wards.

Professor Willett explained patients who tested positive would be moved into “cohorted areas”.

“We put them altogether… and nurse them in one area. That’s important because it makes nursing easier, because you can treat them all in the same isolation area, rather than go in and out, and the [taking on and off] of all that equipment which is arduous and also uses up a lot of equipment.”

Committee chair Jeremy Hunt also questioned the NHS leaders about concerns raised widely about personal protective equipment shortages at some trusts and in some parts of the country.

NHS England chief operating officer Amanda Pritchard insisted there was not a national shortage of PPE yet – although there were local issues.

She said: “We have been assured that there is sufficient supply available nationally… However, we [are] aware that there have been some local distribution problems, so we have not necessarily got the kit in the right.

“So, what we have done today is set up a dedicated helpline so if people have local issues they need immediate response to, then they have got somewhere to go.”

Sir Simon added that while system leaders were assured there was sufficient PPE nationally at present, the system would need more in the coming weeks.

He said: “This is a challenge for every country. A lot of the Chinese supply for some of the more basic items has been disrupted so we are going to need to ramp up [domestic] production for gowns in particular, and some of the facemasks [over the coming weeks and months].”

The NHS bosses were also questioned about numbers of the mechanical ventilators – but ducked answering whether they thought the system had enough to cope.

Sir Simon said it was hoped the number of ventilators would be increased from 8,175 to just under 12,000 in the coming weeks. Conversations were on-going with suppliers about increasing the number beyond that.

Meanwhile, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, told the committee health chiefs were hopeful that if their interventions were successful they could limit the number of coronavirus deaths to 20,000 or less, as opposed to the “hundreds of thousands” estimated under graver scenarios.

Sir Patrick said that would still represent a “horrible, enormous” number of deaths.

MPs were also told:

  • An estimated 55,000 people were likely to have coronavirus in the UK.
  • NHS England was suspending the usual rules around contracts, payments and incentives and will fund providers “up front”.
  • Performance measures for trusts would remain in place but providers will be trusted to make “correct local judgements” and that no changes would be made to targets at present.