A government action plan published on 3 March sets out a three-stage UK approach to the coronavirus outbreak, moving from containment - the current stage - through to delay, and then mitigation.
The document makes clear that 'in a stretching scenario, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks'.
COVID-19 has the potential to 'spread extensively' through the UK population, because the lack of existing immunity and data available to date suggest 'we are all susceptible to catching this disease', the government action plan warns.
Actions to delay the spread of the disease could include closing schools, a shift to more working from home and restrictions on 'large-scale gatherings' if the UK moves beyond the containment phase.
If transmission of the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19 becomes established in the UK population and efforts move towards mitigation, non-urgent NHS treatment could be cancelled, with health and social care services working to 'support early discharge from hospital, and to look after people in their own homes', the document says.
GP leaders have already warned that the QOF could need to be suspended as practices face increased workload from patients concerned about coronavirus - with some GPs reporting a spike in consultations already.
The action plan warns that clinicians' approach may have to change as the NHS workforce is affected by either illness or staff forced to self-isolate. One practice in Brighton at which a GP was forced to self-isolate early in the outbreak shifted temporarily to only accepting urgent appointments.
It also reiterates proposals to bring retired doctors back to the frontline - a move that GP leaders have warned could prove risky, with these doctors potentially in the population group most at risk from the coronavirus.
The latest official figures show that 13,525 people have been tested for coronavirus in the UK, with 40 positive tests.
At least 25 GP practices across England have been forced to close temporarily for cleaning in recent weeks after potential coronavirus cases attended their premises.
In a statement as the action plan was published, prime minister Boris Johnson said: 'Let me be absolutely clear that for the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus, this will be a mild disease from which they will speedily and fully recover as we’ve already seen.
'But I fully understand public concern, your concern, about the global spread of this virus. And it is highly likely that we will see a growing number of UK cases.
'And that’s why keeping the country safe is the government’s overriding priority. And our plan means we’re committed to doing everything possible based on the advice of our world leading scientific experts to prepare for all eventualities.
'Let’s not forget – we already have a fantastic NHS, fantastic testing systems and fantastic surveillance of the spread of disease. We will make sure the NHS gets all the support it needs to continue their brilliant response to the virus so far.'
Impact on the NHS
Chair of the BMA representative body Dr Helena McKeown said: 'If the virus escalates in scale, the impact on an NHS that is already under intense strain, with record numbers of patients on waiting lists, people routinely being treated in hospital corridors and others waiting weeks for a GP appointment, will be grave.
'Difficult decisions may need to be made around admissions, delaying treatment and prioritising those patients who are the most poorly - something that will no doubt cause real concern among both patients and clinicians.
'We also know that the NHS is vastly understaffed and the suggestion of bringing retired health workers back needs serious scrutiny. While some recently retired doctors may be able and willing to return to assist where they can, much will depend on what they are being asked to do.
'The protection of healthcare staff is imperative – and while it’s positive to see a commitment to distributing personal protective equipment, this must apply to the whole health service, including GPs, and it is vital that these are provided in a timely fashion.'