Coronavirus: NHS capacity ‘won’t be breached at national level’

The NHS should be able to cope with the coronavirus outbreak now the country is in lockdown, according to infectious diseases expert Prof Neil Ferguson.

Keeping people inside and increasing NHS staff and beds would prevent intensive care units (ICUs) from being overwhelmed nationally, he said.

There could still be some difficulties at a local level, he told MPs.

But there was now a “reasonable degree of certainty” the government measures would put the epidemic into decline.

‘Extremely stressed’

“This current strategy being adopted now – we think that in some areas of the country ICUs will get very close to capacity but it won’t be breached at a national level,” Prof Ferguson told the science and technology MPs’ committee on Wednesday.

“There will be areas of the country which are extremely stressed, but we are reasonably confident – which is all we can be at the current time – that, at the national level, we will be in capacity,” he said.

Prof Ferguson, a key government adviser on the country’s response to the crisis, was responsible for the Imperial College modelling that changed the government’s approach.

It found that only the most draconian social-distancing measures would be enough to prevent the health service being overwhelmed and as many as a quarter of a million people dying.

These measures are aimed at completely suppressing the spread of the virus.

Critical care capacity

When the researchers looked at what would happen if the government tried to just slow the spread of the epidemic (known as ‘mitigation’), they found ICUs would be eight times over capacity.

Since that research was done, the NHS has put new plans in place making it better able to cope. These plans would mean a ‘mitigation’ strategy would leave the health service’s critical care facilities three times over capacity, Prof Ferguson said.

The combination of those NHS plans and keeping people in their homes is what is predicted to bring demand down to a level hospitals can manage.

There would be some resurgence of cases later, Prof Ferguson said, but these local outbreaks could hopefully be kept at a low level through more intensive testing.

He told the committee of MPs that the latest research suggested as many as half to two-thirds of deaths from coronavirus might have happened this year anyway, because most fatalities were among people at the end of their lives or with other health conditions.

Normal life

The peak of demand for intensive care is expected to come in two to three weeks.

The challenge the UK, and other countries, would then face, Prof Ferguson said, was how to move from a complete lockdown to a situation where some semblance of normal life could be allowed to restart, while still keeping coronavirus cases low.

Part of this would be about significantly increasing the numbers of people being tested, until a vaccine could be found.

But, Prof Ferguson added, the UK did not currently have the capacity to test on the level of countries such as South Korea.

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