Health chiefs say coronavirus is 'level four emergency'

NHS on HIGHEST alert: Health chiefs say coronavirus is ‘level four emergency’ with GPs are told to plan Skype consultations with patients and hospitals instructed to prepare ‘virus wards’

  • Hospitals are being urged to prepare ‘coronavirus wards’ for big infected groups 
  • Professor Keith Willett is urging chief executives to do coronavirus ‘test runs’
  • NHS regional trusts have also been told to set up COVID-19 Incident Centres 

Patients will be offered video appointments to prevent them turning up at overstretched and overcrowded hospitals.

As the entire NHS was put on the highest level of alert to deal with coronavirus, it emerged Skype calls will be given to those with long-term conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, who attend regular outpatient clinics.

Meanwhile, hospitals are being urged to prepare ‘coronavirus wards’ for large groups of infected patients to prevent the spread of the virus to other wards.

It comes as the NHS has been put on Operation Level 4 – the highest level of demand – in anticipation of a surge in cases over the next few weeks.

The measures were set out in a letter to health managers from the NHS’s strategic incident director for coronavirus Professor Keith Willett. 

He urges chief executives to carry out coronavirus ‘test runs’ to practise dealing with a sudden influx of patients.

NHS staff wait for suspected coronavirus patients to arrive at a Milton Keynes compound where tests were conducted on Wuhan evacuees

Coronavirus assessment pods at Chesterfield Royal Hospital, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Boris Johnson visiting staff at Kettering General Hospital where he reviewed their coronavirus preparations

Staff should also be fully trained in putting on hazmat suits, as well as the basics of washing their hands between patients.

And NHS regional trusts have also been told to set up COVID-19 Incident Coordination Centres, which will work seven days a week to provide advice to hospitals, ambulance services and GPs.

Professor Willett’s letter, sent on Monday, states: ‘As you will be aware, the current outbreak of a novel coronavirus is resulting in national and international preparations to be stepped up.

‘In declaring a Level 4 incident, NHS England and NHS Improvement have established an incident management team with an operational incident coordination centre established seven days a week, working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and other Government departments.’

Until now, coronavirus patients have been taken to one of four specialised infectious disease centres: Guy’s and St Thomas’s and the Royal Free in London, the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust and Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

But the letter explains that, should the number of cases escalate as expected, all hospitals in England will be required to treat patients.

In this event, it states ‘we will need to use all acute units, for example through the cohorting of patients’.

The term ‘cohorting’ refers to setting up specialist coronavirus wards to prevent patients infecting others, particularly the elderly who are the most vulnerable.

Face masks have become an increasingly common sight on the streets of London as concern about coronavirus rises 

Coronavirus fears have gripped Britain, as a pedestrian is pictured wearing a protective facemask while taking a bus in Westminster, London

Professor Willett also urges managers to treat patients at home wherever possible through the use of ‘remote consultations’ such as video or phone calls.

He writes: ‘Where possible, consider implementing alternative models such as remote consultations for those patients who can be supported at home and review arrangements to support vulnerable individuals in alternative settings, including in the community.’

Such patients would include those with long-term conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung conditions or osteoporosis.

Not only will this reduce demand, it will also ensure that vulnerable individuals are not coming into hospitals and exposing themselves to the virus. 

Professor Willett’s letter instructs care homes to ensure they have regular contact with GPs and pharmacists to ensure residents do not suddenly become unwell and end up in hospital.

He tells them to prepare to ‘locally manage their residents’, rather than referring them to hospital.

They must also put ‘infection control measures’ in place to ensure the virus is not brought into care homes by a member of staff or visiting relatives.

An NHS spokesman last night pointed out that it has been on a Level 4 alert for at least a month since cases started escalating in China.

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