NHS trusts across England will receive £300 million to upgrade facilities ahead of the winter amid fears of a second wave of coronavirus, Boris Johnson has announced.
The Prime Minister said the additional cash would enable hospitals to maintain essential services and reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection during the coming months.
The funding comes from a £1.5 billion capital building allocation for the NHS set out by Mr Johnson in June.
The move comes amid reports that scientists at Public Health England (PHE) have warned secondary school pupils are as likely to transmit coronavirus as easily as adults.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said PHE findings due to be published later this year showed there was little risk from the Government’s plans to reopen schools in England in September.
However The Times reported that while there was little risk from primary schools, researchers who had worked on the study were unhappy with the way their findings, which have not yet been fully analysed, had been used by ministers.
The report is likely to heighten concerns among teaching unions concerned about whether schools can safely return in the way ministers want.
A PHE spokesperson said: “PHE analysis of recorded cases and outbreaks in educational settings in England is currently undergoing pre-publication verification and review, and will be published in due course.
“It appears to show that SARS-CoV-2 infections and outbreaks were uncommon in educational settings during the first month after the easing of national lockdown in England.”
“Additionally, a nationwide surveillance programme examining antibody prevalence in schoolchildren (sKIDs), is being analysed and should be published in the coming weeks. These publications combined will give the most complete picture of the landscape of Covid-19 in educational settings that we have seen to date.”
It comes as the Government announced it was strengthening regional test and trace powers in England while axing 6,000 national contract tracers.
It means people who have been in contact with confirmed coronavirus cases may get a knock on their door if tracers are unable to reach them over the phone.
Labour said the changes showed the system was nowhere near “world-beating”, as the Government claimed.
In all, 117 trusts will benefit from the additional funding which could be used by hospitals to increase A&E capacity, with more treatment cubicles and expanded waiting areas to ease overcrowding and improve infection control.
It could also enable hospitals to increase the provision of same-day emergency care and improve patient flows to help them to better respond to winter pressures and the risks of fresh coronavirus outbreaks.
Officials said the projects would all be completed by the start of 2021 so hospitals would benefit from the upgrades during the peak months of winter.
Mr Johnson said: “These upgrades will help our fantastic NHS prepare for the winter months, helping them to deliver essential services and reduce the risk of coronavirus infections.”
It comes on top of a £3 billion cash injection for the NHS in England – with extra funding also for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – announced last month to help it to cope with the expected winter pressures.
That funding has been earmarked to enable the NHS to continue to use the extra hospital capacity acquired from the independent sector, maintain Nightingale hospitals until the end of March and expand its flu vaccination programme.
Mr Johnson said it was essential that people who needed emergency treatment during the winter should attend hospital, confident they would not become infected with the virus.
“Thanks to the hard work and tireless efforts of NHS staff throughout the pandemic, our A&Es have remained open for the public,” he said.
“It’s vital that those who need emergency treatment this winter access it, and for those who remain concerned about visiting hospitals, let me assure you that the NHS has measures in place to keep people safe.”
Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said while any additional funding was helpful, there were limits to what it could achieve.
“The money is welcome but how do we think we can actually implement what would be building works in existing units whilst remaining safe and efficient – all before any rise in either Covid or non-Covid patients which, if like last winter, may start before the end of October?” he said.