By Ashish Joshi, Health Correspondent, Sky News
Frontline NHS doctors treating the sickest patients have warned the NHS may not be able to cope with a large-scale coronavirus outbreak.
Many hospitals are still dealing with the seasonal winter crisis and some NHS trusts have no critical care beds as they are already at full capacity.
Dr Rinesh Parmar, chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, told Sky News elective operations are being cancelled already because of normal seasonal pressures.
He warned an outbreak of coronavirus could cripple the health service.
Dr Parmar said: “My main concern is are we going to be able to accommodate an influx of patients? We already know units are at capacity and lots of patient operations are being cancelled.
“Add to that new patients coming in, we may not be able to accommodate although we may be able to spread into new areas of the hospital. “We can’t generate the staff numbers overnight so we are not in the position to expand if there’s an outbreak overnight.”
The NHS says it has plans in place but current contingency planning is based on the government’s successful response to the swine flu pandemic.
But that was in 2009 and even though the plans are constantly revised, years of underfunding and increasing critical care demand means the NHS is in a very different place if there is another pandemic.
“What doctors will say is plans are great, we can try and emergency plan all manner of scenarios, but if your baseline of availability for beds is so low as we are currently seeing we are already 10 steps behind from where we need to be,” Dr Parmar added.
“What we’d like to see from the government on a local level is how each hospital is going to cope, what measures they are taking.
“How are they going to make those decisions of what patients will go on to intensive care? How are those difficult decisions going to be made and who is going to make them?”
In December 4,048 critical care beds were available in England. The recommendation for a critical care unit is to operate with a maximum of 85% of its beds in use.
That is to allow some capacity for a rise in demand. The latest occupancy rates in England show 75.3% of adult critical care beds were full in December.
But looking under the surface of that figure reveals a more worrying picture. A quarter of trusts in England had 85% or more of their beds in use and 11 NHS Trusts were operating at maximum capacity.
A Department Of Health And Social Care spokesperson said: “The UK is a world leader in preparing for and managing disease outbreaks, and our approach will always be led by medical experts.
“We have been clear from the outset that we expect coronavirus to have some impact on the UK and a global pandemic could have a pronounced effect on the NHS, which is why we are planning for every eventuality.
“Public safety is our top priority and we have a team of public health experts and scientists working round the clock to make sure the NHS and UK more widely is fully prepared.”
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