• NHS may need to “postpone anything that is postponable” to deal with coronavirus at its peak
  • Government will continue efforts to delay peak until late spring or summer, when NHS is under less pressure
  • NHS will get “all the support it needs” to deal with virus, says prime minister

Delaying “postponable” appointments and encouraging early discharge feature in the government’s action plan for coronavirus covid-19 transmission becoming established in the UK population.

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said the NHS would “slow down or postpone anything that is postponable” so it could deal with an expected peak of the virus.

The NHS will “reconfigure services to deal with the peak, which will be a relatively short one, in the sense that it is a number of weeks”. He added the government should be able to predict this peak, thanks to epidemiological modelling.

Professor Whitty said: “This is normal medical practice — you adjust what you do clinically to the particular group of problems in front of us.” It is very likely to involve cancelling planned operations, which is common in winter at many hospitals.

Should the outbreak become more serious, the government’s first response will be to continue efforts to slow the disease’s transmission. This includes taking or considering “social distancing” measures, such as closing schools, encouraging homeworking and reducing the number of large public gatherings. 

This will aim to delay the point at which transmissions and incidence of the disease peaks until the late spring and summer “when the NHS is better able to do things,” Professor Whitty said. 

Professor Whitty was speaking at a press conference in Downing Street with prime minister Boris Johnson and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, following the launch of the government’s action plan to address the coronavirus outbreak.

The plan outlined how the government will escalate its “phased response” to the outbreak should it develop into a sustained epidemic.

The prime minister said: “It will be very important to think… what we can do to avoid too much pressure on the NHS. When it comes to using services like GPs or 111, it will be quite important to be self-restraining where possible, because most people will unquestionably get through it.”

He added: “We will make sure the NHS gets all the support it needs to continue their brilliant response to the virus so far.”

Meanwhile, the Financial Times has reported next week’s Budget will likely feature “emergency cash to help the NHS” deal with coronavirus.

The action plan also said:

  • “Health and social care services will work together to support early discharge from hospital, and to look after people in their own homes”;
  • As NHS staff start to be affected by the outbreak, “staff rostering changes may be necessary, including calling leavers and retirees back to duty”; and
  • The government will “implement a distribution strategy for the UK’s stockpiles of key medicines and equipment”, such as protective clothing, to cover the NHS and health service in Northern Ireland, “and extend to social care and other sectors as appropriate”.