ALL doctors will be ordered onto the frontline in the battle against coronavirus – as Boris Johnson is set to ramp-up Britain’s response to the crisis.
The radical step could see plastic surgeons, psychiatrists and anaesthetists treating those struck down by the killer bug.
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It comes amid fears the spread of the virus could see the NHS lose almost a third of its staff at any one time.
With around 1.1 million people employed by hospitals and GPs, it could see more than 300,000 off at the same time.
NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens said crisis planning was well underway.
Up to 18,000 third-year undergraduate nurses will be invited to help — such as giving oxygen to patients struggling to breathe.
Other jobs will include taking blood, checking temperatures and giving medication.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister will chair a lunchtime Cobra meeting where new measures against the outbreak will be finalised.
Millions could now be told to stay at home or avoid busy spaces, such as pubs or supermarkets.
The latest battle plan us set to include advice telling people how to stay away from others and “cocooning” elderly people in care homes.
In a letter to addressed to all doctors, the Chief Medical Officer said they would all be needed on the front line during an epidemic – no matter their specialism.
What is a pandemic?
A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new infectious disease.
It stretches over a larger area, infects more people and causes more deaths than an epidemic.
In history there have been a number of devastating pandemics including smallpox, tuberculosis and the black death, which killed more than 75million people in 1350.
In 2009 a pandemic of swine flu killed 14,286 people worldwide.
Prof Chris Witty said it may “entail working in clinical areas out of their usual practice for the benefit of patients and the population as a whole”.
The letter states: "If Covid 19 becomes an established significant epidemic in the UK, NHS and HSC services across all four nations will be put under extreme pressure.
"This pressure will inevitably be exacerbated by staff shortages due to sickness or caring responsibilities."
It goes on to say: "A significant epidemic will require healthcare professionals to be flexible in what they do.
"It may entail working in unfamiliar circumstances or surroundings, or working in clinical areas outside of their usual practice for the benefit of patients and the population as a whole."
Makeshift intensive care
Meanwhile, UK hospitals have reportedly been told to create makeshift intensive care units.
The Health Service Journal said the "several-fold" rise in intensive care beds could mean thousands added to the NHS's current 4,000 patient capacity.
Sir Simon also wants routine hospital and GP inspections paused to free up frontline workers.
He said: "Coronavirus is now the single biggest challenge facing all European health services, and the NHS will be no exception.
"We're going to have to look after an increasing number of people — and our staff will be affected too."
In other developments, the Irish premier Leo Varadkar today said schools, colleges and childcare facilities will close until March 29.
Museums, galleries and other tourist destinations will also close as a result of the action.
The total number of Covid-19 cases in the Republic stands at 43 and there has been one death.
In contrast, UK cases stand at 460 and there have been eight deaths in British hospitals.
In the UK, the PM is holding an emergency Cobra meeting where ministers are expected to agree to move into the "delay" stage of the process.
Moving to delay would mean social distancing measures could be brought in, such as restricting public gatherings and issuing more widespread advice to stay at home.
Downing Street said it was taking a UK-wide approach, indicating that Northern Ireland would not be following the steps taken in Ireland.
"We have been in regular dialogue with Irish counterparts," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.
"In terms of our own response, we have said that we want it to be a UK-wide response and we have been working with the four chief medical officers and devolved administrations."
Asked about the difference in the approach in Dublin, the spokesman added: "We follow our own advice, they will do the same."
But despite Number 10's suggestion there would be a UK-wide approach, Scotland appeared set to take its own action by cancelling gatherings of more than 500 people.
The expected shift in UK policy comes as Donald Trump dramatically escalated the US response to the coronavirus pandemic, slapping a travel ban on continental Europe.
The suspension of travel between the United States and Europe, excluding the UK and Ireland, will last for 30 days starting on Friday and has been widely criticised.
Mr Trump blamed the European Union for not acting quickly enough to address the outbreak of the virus and saying US clusters were "seeded" by European travellers.
But Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the science does not support such a ban.
He said: "Introducing an international travel ban at a time when the US is now one of the countries with the most rapidly accelerating internal transmission rates will do little if anything to reduce the burden of infection within the US."
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