Top intensive care specialists have warned that Britain is not ready for the coronavirus crisis, with the “overwhelmed” NHS in danger of running out of protective clothing, drugs, beds and oxygen supplies.
In a webinar organised by the Association of Anaesthetists, watched by around 1,000 medics this weekend, experts admitted that there was not enough equipment, or staff available, to fight the crisis.
They predicted that a hospital with 10 patients with coronavirus would run out of the crucial sedation drug propofol within 11 days, and alfentanil – a painkiller and anaesthetic – in less than 24 hours. They also warned that there was already a national shortage of opioid fentanyl.
Hospitals could run short of oxygen in “hours rather than days”, Dr Ganesh Suntharalingam, the president of the Intensive Care Society, said. He added that medical oxygen from BOC Healthcare was being quadrupled ahead of the emerging crisis.
Military drivers will be brought in to drive tankers of oxygen to hospitals so they do not run out.
Professor Tim Cook, consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine at the Royal United Hospital NHS Trust, Bath, said: “These are scary times.
“We have yet to reach the point of acceleration in the UK, and when that hits us that will be fairly horrific – the NHS will be overwhelmed. Good luck is all I can say. It’s going to be pretty tough for everybody.”
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said operating theatres would be turned into wards to treat the sick, while hotels could be co-oped as makeshift hospitals.
The government is also asking industry to repurpose production lines to help make missing equipment.
But consultants warned that some hospitals have no protective equipment at all and are being forced to borrow supplies from elsewhere. Some 46 per cent of consultants said their trusts had not yet planned for more intensive care isolation rooms.
Last week, analysis by George Batchelor of Edge Health, calculated that cases are likely to peak at 1.2 million by mid-July, requiring an extra 30,000 normal beds and an extra 26,000 critical care beds with ventilators.
Medics warned that the NHS “does not have the ability” to provide the amount of support needed for the expected number of kidney injuries that will come with severe infections.
And one consultant said 20 per cent of specialists were missing from his hospital in the east of England, some trapped behind closed borders in countries in lockdown.
Dr Matt Davies, of the Association of Anaesthetists, said he was expecting a shortage of ventilators and pumps.
“We had a pandemic plan and we thought we could just wheel out that plan and all will be well. It’s a start – but it will be nowhere near enough,” he told medics.
“We may possibly have enough physical space in the building, but we will not have enough equipment and not enough people to deliver the care. We are not ready.”
Dr Davies – who said the situation is keeping him awake at night – warned patients are so infectious that the NHS will get through nearly 200 masks for each patient in hospital for 14 days.
“Quite quickly the number of masks will be exhausted,” he said. “I’ve been lying awake at night thinking: ‘Am I catastrophising about this and shroud waving?’ and I am, but probably for very good reason.
“There is a huge regional and national variation in what people have got on the shelves in their buildings. There are some areas with no PPE [protective clothing] and masks, and they are having to borrow them from other trusts. PPE will or may run out. What do we do then?”
Currently when hospital oxygen tanks run low an automatic message is sent to BOC Healthcare, which organises a delivery. But doctors have warned that the supply may be depleted too quickly for the company to keep up.
Dr Suntharalangiam said: “There needs to be a greater heightened sense of urgency about this. Oxygen supply is not something we’re used to thinking about. But there is no guarantee that won’t run out in a matter of hours rather than days.”
Dr Davies added: “It is going to be more of a problem than we predicted. As we increase the number of patients that will be very difficult to predict, but it may not allow that time for that automated message to get through and deliver the oxygen, when every other hospital in the country is in the same position, to supply our patients.”
The consultants also warned that “controversial” guidelines on visitor access in hospitals would soon be published which may stop relatives visiting loved ones to limit the spread and to keep masks and protective clothing for medics.
Hospitals have started to order webcams so they can carry out tele-medicine and allow people to talk to relatives if they are banned from visiting.