Professor Stephen Powis, the NHS medical director, said: “We have asked the Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate to prepare for this next phase. They are being asked to mobilise over the next few weeks to be ready to accept patients if necessary.”

It will be for local medics to decide whether the facilities are used for Covid patients or to provide extra capacity to maintain services for people without coronavirus. Health officials said other Nightingale hospitals may be put on standby to cope with spikes in demand elsewhere, with increased testing of health staff in hotspot areas. 

It follows warnings that as many as one in five cases of Covid detected in hospital is likely to have been caught there. 

The Commons health committee has long called for weekly testing of all NHS staff to break chains of transmission, but on Monday health officials only committed to increased testing in areas with high infection rates, such as the North-West. 

Dr Jane Eddleston, an intensive care consultant at Manchester Royal Infirmary, said the hospital had seen a threefold increase in Covid cases in intensive care in the last five weeks, with an eightfold increase in admissions. 

She said: “The situation at the moment is that 30 percent of our critical care beds are taken up with patients with Covid, and this is starting to impact on the services we provide for other patients.”

It came as the Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust chief executive, Steve Warburton, admitted the trust had reached a “critical point”. In a leaked memo, seen by the Health Service Journal, he admitted non-emergency operations would have to be cancelled.

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