The NHS faces running out of beds during a major coronavirus outbreak, the Chief Medical Officer said today.
Professor Chris Whitty warned that he expected half of all cases in the UK to happen within a period of just three weeks – meaning in a bad scenario the health service could be ‘way’ over bed capacity.
The grim picture was laid out as Prof Whitty said the government has now essentially moved to the ‘delay’ phase of its response – with efforts to contain new cases having failed.
He said UK cases will keep rising and infections are taking place between Britons, with the chances the virus would fade away in the short term now ‘slim to zero’.
Giving evidence to MPs as the number of UK cases hit 90, Prof Whitty said: ‘This could be anywhere from a rather bad winter for the NHS, but in spring or summer through to huge numbers way overtopping the ability of the NHS to put everyone in beds, and that obviously would have big pressures on the service.’
Prof Whitty also backtracked on suggestions that the authorities could stop providing geographical information about new cases in the UK. After complaints about a lack of transparency, he said such details would still be released and blamed a ‘communications fumble’.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has insisted he will be guided by scientists – saying there will be a ‘balance’ between ‘draconian’ measures to limit the spread and keeping society functioning.
At least four NHS staff have caught the illness, which has now infected 90 people in the UK, along with two other people in hospitals and a medical student in London.
Three new cases were confirmed this morning by the Scottish Government, in people from Forth Valley, Greater Glasgow & Clyde, and Grampian, bringing the country’s total to six.
Healthcare workers are at particular risk of contracting and spreading the virus because they come into close contact with sick perople and meet a lot of different patients, visitors and colleagues.
King’s College Hospital, in London, yesterday put parts of its buildings in lockdown after two coronavirus cases were discovered there, and another was diagnosed at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester.
One of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with the virus was a GP working in Brighton, and another hospital doctor in nearby Worthing contracted the illness.
NHS workers in Carlisle and Maidstone and a patient and a student at King’s College Hospital have also all been diagnosed.
Giving evidence to the Health Select Committee, Prof Whitty said: ‘I’m expecting the number only to go up.
‘There are now several – not large numbers – but several cases where we cannot see where this has come from in terms of a clear transmission, either because someone has come directly from overseas or because they’ve had a close contact with someone who has recently returned from overseas.
‘That I think makes it highly likely therefore that there is some level of community transmission of this virus in the UK now.’
He added: ‘It is here at very low levels at this point in time, but that should be the working assumption on which we go forward.
Asked by chairman Jeremy Hunt whether the government had shifted its focus fro ‘contain’ to ‘delay’, Prof Whitty said: We are now basically mainly delay.’