Hospitals have been told to create “coronavirus priority assessment pods”, where people will be checked for the virus, which will need to be decontaminated each time they are used.
The letter, seen by The Independent and dated 31 January, instructs all chief executives and medical directors to have the pods up and running no later than Friday 7 February.
It comes as the global death toll from the virus has reached almost 500 with around 25,000 infected.
One hospital chief executive told The Independent he believed the requirement was “an overreaction”, adding: “I think we should be sending teams out to swab in patients homes as the advice is to stay at home and self-manage as with any other flu.
“Once the public is aware that we have the pods in place, it could create more anxiety and inappropriate referrals.”
Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, agreed the proposals appeared to be an overreaction. People should be sent home and assessed from there, he said.
He added: “The British people are extremely compliant. This is a use of precious NHS resources when we have tried and tested processes after the swine flu pandemic where we didn’t do this.
“Putting someone in a pod creates a temporary holding station where there are all sorts of issues about ventilation and air clearance etc that could raise the risk of infection.”
In the letter, Professor Keith Willett, who is leading the NHS’s response to coronavirus, told NHS bosses: “Plans have been developed to avoid a surge in emergency departments due to coronavirus.
“Although the risk level in this country remains moderate, and so far there have been only two confirmed cases, the NHS is putting in place appropriate measures to ensure business as usual services remain unaffected by any further cases or tests of coronavirus.”
He added: “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.”
According to the letter, when someone arrives at hospital showing signs of infection they will be sent to a pod where they will use a telephone to call a specialist NHS 111 assessment service.
The letter said the pods must be in an isolated area of the hospital, which is away from the emergency department and able to be decontaminated after every use.
The Department of Health and Social Care has said 468 people in the UK have now tested negative for coronavirus, with two positive cases.
If the patient needs to be admitted or needs further testing the letter says NHS 111 will contact the A&E department on its “red phone” to arrange the next steps.
It added: “The pod will need to be decontaminated in accordance with [Public Health England] guidance following each NHS 111 assessment.”
The letter said hospitals will need to plan for “measures to deal with the potential for increasing numbers of patients”.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is to chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on Wednesday afternoon for an update on the UK response to the coronavirus outbreak, Downing Street has said.