The UK government is drawing up a “battle plan” against the global coronavirus outbreak, with measures that could include pulling doctors and nurses out of retirement and deploying military medics to hospitals.
It comes as the government announced 12 more cases Sunday, bringing the total number to 35. Three of the new patients were in close contact with a case transmitted in the UK and eight had recently returned from outbreak hotspots in Iran and Italy.
However, one new patient in the county of Essex close to London had no relevant recent travel, the government said in a statement.
Compared to at least 130 reported coronavirus cases in France and almost 1,700 in Italy, the infection rate in the UK is still low, but the numbers are almost certain to climb.
The virus has spread to more than 60 countries, and more than 3,000 people have died from the Covid-19 illness it causes.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the disease was likely to “spread a bit more” in the UK, but stressed the country was able to cope.
“The professionals will be well able to cope, we have the testing system we need, a way of triaging people coming back into this country that may have been in contact with coronavirus,” he said.
“I am very confident this country has the capacity to deal with the thing – we will be setting out the various measures as the disease progresses that we think the public bodies should be responding to,” he said during a visit to Public Health England’s infection control headquarters in Colindale in northwest London.
But, with the National Health Service (NHS), once a source of national pride, but under increasing strain, is the prime minister being over-optimistic?
With many parts of the country recovering from unprecedented flooding, and post-Brexit trade talks with the EU starting this week, a major outbreak could test the Johnson government’s ability to handle a major health crisis.
On Monday, Johnson will chair a “war room” meeting of experts and scientists in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, or COBRA, used in the event of a national emergency.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC on Sunday the government would this week release a plan in the event of a global pandemic. Measures could range from closing schools to isolating entire cities if the outbreak worsens. Large gatherings of people at sporting events or concerts could also be banned.
One option is to recall retired doctors and nurses, in what the UK press has dubbed a “Dad’s Army” of medics after the popular TV series about the wartime home guard.
But with people over 60 most at risk from the disease, the retirees would likely have to be confined to desk jobs and other support roles rather than hospital wards.
Military medics, British Red Cross and St John Ambulance personnel could also be drafted to help the NHS cope with a major outbreak, if large numbers of NHS staff were to fall ill or self-isolate at home.
Hancock refuted claims that the UK only had 15 hospital beds with the right isolation and ventilating equipment to treat severe lung conditions, saying the number was around 5,000.
But in the event of a pandemic, that would still be too few, while other NHS services could buckle under the strain.
According to the anti-privatisation campaign Keep Our NHS Public, two-thirds of hospitals in the UK are in debt and wages have been kept down, following 10 years of Conservative cuts. This has reportedly left 100,000 clinical posts unfilled, 40,000 of them nurses.
Bed numbers have been cut with 9000 acute beds lost over the past 10 years with around 95 per cent – rather than what was previously regarded as a safe level of 85 per cent. Newspapers are full of reports of seriously ill people being left in hospital corridors for hours because of a shortage of beds.
An as-yet-unpublished report by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine doctors, leaked last December, showed an increasing number of deaths due to a lack of beds in accident and emergency departments, due also to shortages of ambulance staff.
“If A&E is full, ambulances cannot hand over new patients, and the crews have to wait around until space is found and cannot answer new calls. Delays and overcrowding in A&E are likely to amplify the risks of spread of coronavirus,” Dr John Puntis, a paediatrician and co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, said.
He said the number of people on the UK waiting list for elective surgery has grown to 4.6 million, the highest ever, and key cancer treatment targets are already being missed.
Hospitals in the UK have already been barred from stockpiling protective equipment like secure FFP3 moulded masks.
However, according to Tom Gardiner, a junior doctor with the NHS “very few health care professionals” are currently trained in how to fit these masks.
This could delay initial care for suspected coronavirus patients isolated in hospital if only certain staff were properly equipped to see them.
Along with Brexit, the NHS was the major issue in last December’s election campaign, championed by the Conservative Party as well as Labour. Johnson promised to build 40 new hospitals at a cost of £24 billion (US$31 million).
And while the UK has officially left the European Union, the spectre of a no-deal agreement was still possible.
The UK government claims its no-deal contingency planning last year meant the country would be able to cope with the resulting economic costs of a coronavirus outbreak. But the scenario could mean the country faces vital shortages of medical supplies.
Three-quarters of the medicines and more than half of the devices that the NHS uses come into the UK from the EU. It is anticipated that a no-deal Brexit would disrupt cross channel supply routes for up to six months.
“There are huge misgivings about no-deal Brexit planning itself in relation to adverse effects on the NHS, without adding in a coronavirus outbreak bringing additional – and potentially enormous additional pressures,” Puntis said.
The UK is tackling its coronavirus outbreak by containment, tracing contacts of those who are ill.
The concern is that if self-isolation is simply not feasible for millions of the country’s workforce.
Around 4.8 million people, or 15 per cent of the working population, are counted as self-employed. A significant number of those are on what is known as “zero hour contracts”, where they report to work like an employee, but have no employment benefits like sick pay.
Many of these are among the poorest-paid workers who are unlikely to be able to afford to self-isolate if they come down with just light symptoms, potentially aiding the spread of the disease.
School closures would also have a negative effect on the number of staff working in hospitals, because they would have to stay at home to look after their own children.