Health Secretary Matt Hancock has braced the UK for “quite extraordinary interventions that you don’t normally have in peacetime” to combat the coronavirus pandemic. But what are these interventions and how will they change the NHS?
The health secretary said empty hotels across the country would help ease the pressure on hospitals that are filling up with patients.
“Some people are saying: ‘Should you build a hospital?'” Mr Hancock told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“Actually, we’ve seen that many hotels are empty so we’ve got ready-built facilities for looking after people.”
Asked about whether military field hospitals might also be used to spread the load, Mr Hancock said: “I’m open to all options.”
He said he was more concerned that enough staff members and equipment were available to cope with an influx in patients, rather than worrying about where those patients would go to receive care.
“The critical thing is that [the hotels] need oxygen supply and the ventilation equipment – whether it’s the invasive ventilation or just the mask on your face.
“So what matters is not just the space, it’s making sure that the equipment and the trained staff are there as well.”
So how will thousands of new ventilators – machines needed to help patients breathe – be made quickly enough to cope with an increase in demand?
Mr Hancock said there were 5,000 ventilators available in the UK at the moment but that many times that number would be needed as the number of people with Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, increased.
Asked if the likes of military engineers and car manufacturers would be asked to meet the demand, the health secretary said: “Yes, we’re talking to all those companies.”
“We’ve got high quality engineering in this country. And we want anybody who has the manufacturing capability to turn to the manufacture of ventilators to do that,” he added.
The speedy manufacturing might not stop once the UK has enough ventilators either, with Mr Hancock suggesting the equipment could be sent abroad to help other countries in need.
The cancellation of swathes of non-urgent – or “elective” – surgery will help to free up space, Mr Hancock said.
He said the sorts of operations that could be delayed “in this emergency” situation included hip and knee operations.
Operating theatres where these procedures are normally carried out are equipped with oxygen supplies, meaning they “can be turned into wards” for coronavirus patients.
This measure is “one of the first things that we’re going to do”, he added.
All those extra ventilators will throw up another problem – there are not enough trained nurses and doctors to operate them.
To fix this, Mr Hancock said the government wanted to bring recently-retired doctors “back into service”.
But, the health secretary said, some of those workers would need to be trained up to deal with the specific needs of Covid-19 – which is a respiratory disease,
“We will be stopping some other activity, and asking doctors who normally do other things to retrain to be able to, for instance, use the ventilators.”
He would not say how long it might take to train people up but did say: “We will do it as fast as we can.”