The NHS will start testing 10,000 people a day for coronavirus, with the number of confirmed cases set to soar.
As the number of cases in the UK reached 373, with a sixth death, health officials said they now expect the peak of the epidemic to start within a fortnight.
Around 50 NHS trusts have embarked on “drive-thru” testing in a bid to keep pressure off hospitals despite concern that new facilities could be swamped by the “worried well”.
Until now, the NHS has only had capacity for 2,000 tests a day, with some patients complaining that it has taken nine days to get their results. But the expansion of testing is expected to see a surge in confirmed cases, with fears that Britain could follow the pattern seen in Italy, where hospitals are now overwhelmed.
So far, more than 25,000 tests have been conducted by public health officials in England, but the plans aim to assess 10,000 swabs a day within weeks.
Since the testing regime began on February 26, the NHS has swabbed 26,261 people for the virus. At the new accelerated rate, more people will be tested in three days than in the past two weeks.
The proposals will scale up testing capacity by 500 per cent as the NHS prepares for a “significant” increase in cases detected.
Health officials expect 50 per cent of all cases of coronavirus to occur over just three weeks, with 95 per cent of cases occurring over nine weeks, putting services under extreme pressure.
On Tuesday, Dr Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, signalled that the peak period was likely to begin in the next two weeks with a sudden rise in cases. “Within 10 to 14 days we will be likely to advise people with symptoms to self-isolate, and we are expecting that start of the peak to come within that period,” she said.
Compliance with the advice would be “extremely effective in trying to move our epidemic curve forward” towards warmer months, she said, adding that cancelling big events such as football matches might not have much impact.
“The virus will not survive very long outside,” she added. “Many outdoor events, particularly, are relatively safe.”
Great Ormond Street on Tuesday cancelled all non-essential heart operations for two weeks after a health worker tested positive for the virus.
Health minister Jo Churchill said some patients could expect to wait longer for NHS treatment as doctors prioritise those with more serious illness first.
Ministers said they hoped to remove “all appropriate bureaucracy” requirements on GPs so they could focus on responding to the coronavirus outbreak.
It came as the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said GP appointments will be held by smartphone and videolink wherever possible “with immediate effect”.
GPs have already been ordered to screen any patients who try to book appointments online by video or phone in order to assess whether they may have coronavirus before they set foot in a surgery.
Mr Hancock will chair a Cobra meeting on Wednesday afternoon to finalise details of emergency legislation that will enable the Government to ramp up its response to coronavirus. It will include increasing school class sizes where teachers are off sick, and will make it easier for retired doctors to re-register to help fill gaps in the NHS.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, will then chair a Cobra committee on Thursday – the first time in the crisis that Cobra will have met three times in a week.
Dozens of “drive-thru” coronavirus testing centres have opened in recent days. NHS Trusts have set up around 50 facilities across the country at which drivers can be swabbed for the disease inside their cars by nurses wearing full hazmat suits.
The centres have opened in locations including Wolverhampton, Sheffield and London, with similar centres opened in Scotland and Wales. Health chiefs stressed, however, that patients should only visit the swabbing centres after being specifically referred by the NHS 111 service amid fears that healthy people could turn up and demand to be tested.
In a letter seen by The Telegraph, Dave Thomas, the chief nurse at the Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation Trust, warned that a new facility in the small town of Ottery St Mary should not be seen as a “drop-in centre”.
“People will only drive to the testing facility if they have been given an appointment, following a telephone assessment by NHS 111,” he wrote. “It is not a drop-in centre and ONLY those who meet the nationally agreed criteria for a suspected case will be asked to attend and given an appointment for their test.”
It came as the NHS faced complaints that some people suspected of carrying coronavirus had been left waiting for up to nine days for results.
Phillip Meyer, 48, and his 12-year-old son Gabriel began suffering symptoms shortly after returning from a family skiiing trip to northern Italy on 24 February. The pair went into self-isolation on 2 March after developing a cough and a high temperature, he said.
“I called NHS 111 last Monday and was told that we’d be tested for coronavirus,” he told The Telegraph on Tuesday night. “Since then I’ve been calling every day asking when they’ll actually arrive. We still have the symptoms and I’m worried we might have unwittingly spread the virus around before going into isolation.
“They clearly don’t have the capacity to do this properly, and it’s putting people at risk.”
An ambulance arrived to test Mr Meyer and his son at their Kent home shortly after the local NHS Trust was contacted by the media.
Meanwhile, the son of a 60-year-old man who died after being diagnosed with coronavirus has said he fell ill “instantly”. The man died at North Manchester General Hospital on Sunday after coming back from a trip to northern Italy at the end of February, his son told BBC Bangla.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, said: “Wider testing is important as it allows us to continue to meet demand as the number of people being tested increases in the coming weeks.
“This will ensure that PHE and the NHS have the most robust system possible to understand what is happening with the virus.”