Hospitals have been told to cancel non-urgent surgery and free up beds as they prepare for large numbers of Covid-19 patients.
In a letter to senior managers and hospital trusts, NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens and NHS chief operating officer Amanda Pritchard said the health service will “come under intense pressure” when the virus peaks.
It said important measures are needed to “free up the maximum possible inpatient and critical care capacity; prepare for, and respond to, the anticipated large numbers of Covid-19 patients who will need respiratory support; and support staff, and maximise their availability”.
The letter said the aim is to expand critical care capacity to the maximum and “free up 30,000 (or more) of the English NHS’s 100,000 general and acute beds”.
Hospitals are told to assume they will need to postpone all non-urgent operations from April 15 at the latest, “for a period of at least three months”.
But emergency admissions, cancer treatment and other clinically urgent care should continue unaffected, the letter said.
Hospitals should also “urgently discharge all hospital inpatients who are medically fit to leave”.
“Community health providers must take immediate full responsibility for urgent discharge of all eligible patients identified by acute providers on a discharge list.”
The document says the NHS is in the process of “block-buying” capacity in private hospitals, which should be completed within a fortnight.
“Their staff and facilities will then be flexibly available to you for urgent surgery, as well as for repurposing their beds, operating theatres and recovery facilities to provide respiratory support for Covid-19 patients.”
Community health providers and social care providers are also being asked to free up beds that could be used flexibly, the letter went on.
It added: “Emerging international and UK data on Covid-19 patients suggests that a significant proportion who are hospitalised require respiratory support, particularly mechanical ventilation and to a lesser extent non-invasive ventilation.
“Work is well in hand nationally to secure a step change in oxygen supply and distribution to hospitals.”
The document says that centrally there is adequate supply of protective equipment for staff but “locally distribution issues are being reported”.
More staff will be needed to support patients with respiratory needs and “refresher training for all clinical and patient-facing staff must therefore be provided within the next fortnight”.
The NHS will also test any staff with symptoms who would otherwise need to self-isolate for seven days.
Pregnant workers or others at increased risk may need to work remotely or move to a lower risk area, the letter said.
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