The Government is preparing for up to a fifth of the UK’s workforce to be off at the peak of a coronavirus pandemic.
Its new action plan sets out a strategy to try to delay the peak of the virus until warmer months, and as previously revealed the NHS may call on retired doctors to help deal with the outbreak.
It says that as NHS staff become affected by the virus and seriously ill patients need to be admitted to hospitals, ‘clinicians may recommend a significantly different approach to admissions’ with delays to non-urgent care as a result.
It also announces new legislation that will allow medical professionals to ‘detain individuals in quarantined areas’ if they are ‘suspected of having the virus’.
GPs may not have to sign sick notes for people who are off sick with the coronavirus or are self-isolating due to exposure to a sick patient, as employers were urged to ‘use discretion’ on medical evidence.
The plan said: ‘If the disease becomes established in the UK, we will need to consider further measures to reduce the rate and extent of its spread. Based on experience with previous outbreaks, it may be that widespread exposure in the UK is inevitable; but slowing it down would still nonetheless be beneficial.
‘For example, health services are less busy in the summer months when flu and other winter bugs are not driving GP consultations and hospital admissions.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out the Government’s ‘battle plan’ at a press conference at Number 10 on Tuesday.
He said this comes as ‘it is highly likely that we will see a growing number of UK cases.’
He said that’s why the Government is preparing ‘for all eventualities’.
‘We will make sure the NHS gets all the support it needs to continue its brilliant response to the virus so far,’ he said.
But Mr Johnson stressed the action plan is ‘a worst-case scenario’ and sets out what the Government ‘could do’ rather than what it ‘will do’.
He said the country is ‘extremely well prepared’ and reminded people to ‘wash our hands with soap and hot water’ for ‘the length of time it takes to sing happy birthday twice’.
‘I want to stress that for the vast majority of people in this country we should be going about our business as usual,’ he added.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the proportion of the population that will get infected is ‘likely lower’ than 80%. Government experts are preparing for a scenario where the outbreak lasts around 2-3 months prior to a peak, then another 2-3 months until it declines again.
But the action plan said: ‘Given that the data are still emerging, we are uncertain of the impact of an outbreak on business. In a stretching scenario, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks.’
It also said:
‘as NHS/HSCNI staff also start to become affected, and more seriously ill patients require admission, clinicians may recommend a significantly different approach to admissions. Some non-urgent care may be delayed to prioritise and triage service delivery. Staff rostering changes may be necessary, including calling leavers and retirees back to duty’
‘New regulations introduced in England under public health legislation provide new powers for medical professionals, public health professionals and the police to allow them to detain and direct individuals in quarantined areas at risk or suspected of having the virus.’
‘All NHS and HSCNI emergency and urgent care facilities are working to establish coronavirus assessment services to lessen impacts on Emergency Departments and other clinical settings. This enables them to identify, isolate and contain cases, separate from other patients and the public, and in a way scalable to cope with expanding need. Specifically tailored and effective services responding to this outbreak have protected GPs, ambulance and hospital services for other patients.’
‘treatment and the requirement for medicines and other clinical countermeasures might start to increase, with the need to draw down on existing stockpiles of the most important medicines, medical devices and clinical consumables’
‘We will implement a distribution strategy for the UK’s stockpiles of key medicines and equipment (e.g. protective clothing). This will cover the NHS/HSCNI, and extend to social care and other sectors as appropriate.’
‘health and social care services will work together to support early discharge from hospital, and to look after people in their own homes’
‘We will consider legislative options, if necessary, to help systems and services work more effectively in tackling the outbreak.’
The Government is launching a public information campaign later this week in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus.
The Budget, due to be announced next week (11 March), will also include emergency funding to boost the public health response.
As of 9am this morning, there were 51 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
BMA chief officer Dr Helena McKeown, a GP locum in Wessex, said that ‘if the virus escalates in scale, the impact on an NHS that is already under intense strain, with record numbers of patients on waiting lists, people routinely being treated in hospital corridors and others waiting weeks for a GP appointment, will be grave’.
‘The public and our members will be rightly worried about how services will cope.
‘As outlined in the Government’s plans, difficult decisions may need to be made around admissions, delaying treatment and prioritising those patients who are the most poorly – something that will no doubt cause real concern among both patients and clinicians.’
She added: ‘The protection of healthcare staff is imperative – and while it’s positive to see a commitment to distributing personal protective equipment, this must apply to the whole health service, including GPs, and it is vital that these are provided in a timely fashion.’