CMO Professor Chris Whitty said the UK was now mainly in the ‘delay stage’ of responding to the virus outbreak after the number of confirmed cases jumped sharply to 85 on 4 March. In evidence to the House of Commons health and social care select committee he predicted cases would continue to rise.
Measures including suspension of CQC inspections and doubling the duration of GP sick notes from seven to 14 days are also under consideration in the event of a widespread outbreak, the CMO indicated - although the CQC has said it plans to continue inspections for now.
Following warnings from GPs over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplied to practices and a lack of training for practice staff on how to use it, Professor Whitty said it was vital NHS staff did not use PPE if they had not received training. Removing used PPE incorrectly could put staff at risk of infection, he warned.
Doctors' leaders have raised concerns in recent days over government plans to bring retired doctors back into frontline care to bolster the NHS workforce as the health service tackles coronavirus - but the CMO made clear that only recently retired doctors would be considered.
Professor Whitty told MPs: ‘Certainly for doctors, the plan is not to take everybody who’s retired, only those who have recently - in the last two or three years - retired and are still fairly current.'
The CMO admitted the government had not tested the willingness of doctors to return to practice, but said he was ‘very confident’ they would see many doctors rise to the challenge if required.
Asked about concerns that retired doctors returning to work could be at risk because of evidence that COVID-19 infection can affect older people more severely, the CMO said he would expect doctors considering a return to work to assess for themselves whether they had health conditions that might worry them.
He suggested returning doctors could be deployed in non patient-facing roles. The CMO said: ‘The NHS is a pragmatic organisation, it does understand safety and it will do its best to make sure that both staff and patients are safe within the confines of what could be a really quite serious problem for a limited period of time.
‘We might well be in a situation where we decide that we deploy doctors who are older or who have health conditions into non patient-facing roles that may still be clinical…there are things that could be done that would not put them at risk but would help to serve the public for this period of time when the NHS was under considerable strain.'
Professor Whitty confirmed medical students and FY1 doctors could also be brought into frontline services with extended rights to practise to support the NHS workforce.
‘We have already come to a view that, if it gets to the point where we need to, changing what foundation year 1 doctors can do, extending their rights to some degree and extending into the final year of medical students might be one of the things we would consider in addition to putting [retired doctors] back into service, if they were willing.’
The CMO said his view of the UK's chances of containing coronavirus well was ‘pretty optimistic’.
Speaking alongside him, deputy CMO for England Dr Jenny Harries confirmed in response to a question from select committee member Dr Luke Evans - a Conservative MP and GP - that training was available for doctors on use of PPE, but she urged GPs to make use of government guidance on how to handle a suspected coronavirus contact.
Dr Harries also moved to clear up confusion around who was responsible for deep cleaning, should a coronavirus patient walk into a practice.
She told MPs: ‘If a case or a potential case is identified at a practice the local health protection team in Public Health England (PHE) will do a risk assessment, both of the environment and of the individuals who will have come into contact with that suspected or confirmed case and will give advice about environmental cleaning as well. In most cases, it will need a deep clean but not with specific, unusual cleaning agents.’