The NHS is preparing to commandeer private beds for the treatment of coronavirus patients to help it cope with the worsening crisis, it has emerged.
Health service managers are already in discussions with independent health care providers to take private beds for the use of patients suffering from COVID-19.
The moves could even extend to entire private hospitals being used by the NHS if the scale of the crisis becomes so great that its own hospitals are overwhelmed.
It comes as the NHS is expected to announce the widespread suspension of routine care to cope with the anticipated flood of cononavirus patients, with urgent operations set to be cancelled and patients sent home to free beds.
Initial talks are underway at local and national level between NHS trusts and authorities and their private counterparts as to the best way of increasing the resources available for doctors.
A source in the independent healthcare sector told The Telegraph: “There are conversations going on between NHS England and our providers as to how the sector can help during the coronavirus crisis.
“Talks are taking place at both local trust and national level about the possibility of providing beds.”
The source added: “It’s too early to say at this stage how many beds would be made available, but NHS England is developing a programme on this.”
It is understood the discussions may lead to a deal allowing the NHS to buy services more quickly from the private sector should demand surge.
Other options being discussed are thought to include the NHS sending more people to private providers for planned operations, to free up its own capacity; the private sector stepping in to help in places where NHS services have been hit by demand and staff shortages or taking non-complex coronavirus patients who need hospital beds.
The private sector has 193 hospitals with 630 operating theatres and 8,482 beds – with nearly eight per cent of them at intensive care level. The number of beds goes up to more than 9,500 once those in the 69 private patient units (PPUs) within NHS facilities are taken into account. That compares to around 100,000 in the NHS.
Several clinicians have called for the NHS to have use of private beds for the treatment of coronavirus patients as a matter of urgency, ahead of the anticipated steep rise in the number of cases.
Professor Karol Sikora, the renowned oncologist and dean of the University of Buckingham’s medical school, said: “We’ve got huge amounts of spare capacity in the private sector. We’ve got to use it. We’ve got to find a way that it could be used for everybody. Let’s use this opportunity through a crisis to see how we can get the independent sector working much more closely with the NHS.”
Christopher Peters, an upper gastrointestinal consultant at Imperial College Healthcare Trust, in London, wrote on Twitter: “There are about 11 000 private hospital beds in the UK mostly used for non urgent care. In the event of a coronavirus epidemic NHS England must commandeer these to increase capacity.”
The use of private beds raises the prospect of coronavirus spreading from those who have contracted the disease to already vulnerable patients being treated privately for serious conditions such as cancer.
Professor Keith Willett, NHS England Strategic Incident Director, said this week that the prospect of cases increasing for months to come would mean having to stop treating coronavirus patients in isolation.
He said it would soon not be possible to keep cases in separate rooms, despite the extremely infectious nature of the virus.
The use of private beds in the event of a serious epidemic placing severe strain on hospitals is outlined in Government documents outlining the NHS response to such a situation.
The Department of Health’s Social Care Influenza Pandemic Preparedness and Response strategy states that when the epidemic reaches the treatment and escalation stage it is the responsibility of the NHS to “consider enacting any agreements with independent sector providers to support local NHS providers”.
David Furness, Director of Policy at the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, which represents the private health care sector, said: “The independent sector is a key part of the UK healthcare system and providers are working tirelessly to help stop the spread of coronavirus and to treat and support patients.
“Independent providers are also working closely with local healthcare systems to ensure that they are providing all possible support to patients and the public.”
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy and operations at the Nuffield Trust think tank said: “It is important that the NHS explores all routes for securing capacity in the context of coronavirus, and it is reassuring that these discussions are happening now.”