All NHS hospitals in England must have cordoned off coronavirus testing areas, according to leaked documents.
Emergency departments have been told they should have isolated ‘assessment pods’ ready to use by this Friday, February 7, it is reported.
From inside the pods patients will be told to phone the NHS 111 helpline and then assessed and the A&E staff updated by phone and warned if they need testing.
The Chinese coronavirus, which spreads through coughs and sneezes, has now infected almost 25,000 people in more than 25 countries and killed 493, with the vast majority of patients in China.
Only two cases have been diagnosed in the UK but the country is on high alert for more and has warned all citizens currently in China to try and leave the country.
The Government insists the NHS is well-prepared in case the infection spreads here, and the leaked letter suggests the entire country is bracing for the virus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock will host a government Cobra meeting this afternoon to discuss the ongoing outbreak.
The letter, seen by The Independent, is reportedly dated January 31 and was sent to hospital bosses around England.
In it Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s director for acute care, says: ‘Trusts are being asked to organise a coronavirus priority assessment pod, which will mean people with symptoms indicative of infection will get quick assessment, while other patients also continue to get appropriate care.’
People who could be at risk of coronavirus are those who have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone who has, and have developed flu-like symptoms such as a fever or coughing.
Anyone suspected to be infected with the virus, which may go unnoticed for weeks, should be kept away from other people.
The hospitals’ coronavirus ‘pods’ could help doctors to separate them and also stop them interrupting the normal function of A&E departments.
But setting them up might encourage people who think they are infected to go to A&E, which is the opposite of what official guidance says, one doctor warned.
An unnamed chief executive of one hospital told the Independent: ‘Once the public is aware that we have the pods in place, it could create more anxiety and inappropriate referrals.’
Advice from Public Health England, issued to doctors around the country last month, said GPs should shut any suspected patients into their surgeries alone.
If someone has a travel history and symptoms which match the coronavirus, the doctor should ‘withdraw from the room, close the door and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water’, PHE said.
‘Avoid physical examination of a suspected case. The patient should remain in the room with the door closed. Belongings and waste should remain in the room.’
People should then be told to make their way home without using public transport or a taxi, then get themselves to a hospital once the doctor has phoned ahead to warn the hospital they’re coming.
The A&E pods would work as a quarantined room with a phone in it, on which a suspected patient can call NHS 111.
The call handler will quiz the patient and assess whether they need to be admitted to the hospital or given further tests, then contact A&E by phone to update them.
If they are to be tested they are expected to be led off to a secluded area of the hospital while tests are done.
The room must then be decontaminated before the next patient uses it, the letter said.
NHS England declined to comment.