Nearly 8 million people in the UK could be admitted to hospital during the coronavirus epidemic over the next 12 months, according to an official report leaked to the press.
The government’s research chief, Sir Mark Walpole, has said that a vaccine for coronavirus Covid-19 is likely to take up to a year to develop.
Eighty per cent of the population could be infected during that time under the worst case scenario, and “up to 15 per cent (7.9 million people) may require hospitalisation”, the report says.
The figures are provided to explain why coronavirus testing is being prioritised for critically ill patients and those already admitted to hospital with relevant symptoms.
At present a maximum of 4,000 tests can be carried out each day, although there are plans to extend this to 10,000.
As a result there is not enough capacity to test all essential workers, given there are around 5 million people in “essential services and critical infrastructure” and another 2.5 million health and social care staff.
The Society for Acute Medicine (SAM) has warned that staffing is one of the major issues facing the NHS in tackling coronavirus.
“The biggest concern I have in terms of management of Covid-19 is what happens when hospital and community workers become ill or go into isolation,” said former SAM president Nick Scriven. “Or when schools close and NHS staff have to look after young families.”
PHE said it would not comment on the contents of the document, following reports by Channel 4 and The Guardian.
The decision not to test every case of coronavirus conflicts with advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission”.
“You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is,” said WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every case we find and treat limits the expansion of the disease.”
As the UK death toll rose to 35, opposition parties accused Boris Johnson of being “complacent” and “well behind the curve” after a weekend of confusion about the government’s plans to order all over-70s to quarantine themselves.
Criticism of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak so far has pushed the prime minister to agree to hold daily briefings from Monday.
It came as health secretary Matt Hancock said that the NHS needs ventilators “more than anything else” to cope with the epidemic.
Manufacturers are being urged to join a ”national effort” to produce the equipment in anticipation of a surge in the number of patients requiring intensive care.
Additional reporting by agencies