Non-urgent operations are to be postponed over the next two or three weeks to cope with coronavirus demand, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has said.
Ms Freeman has also asked Scottish health boards to detail their plans to increase hospital capacity as the NHS gets ready for the number of cases to soar.
The Health Secretary issued a short statement outlining further preparations as it was revealed that an elderly patient in NHS Lothian has become the first person with the virus to die in Scotland.
In her statement, Ms Freeman said: “We have been clear from the outset about the challenges our health service is going to face in the weeks and possibly months to come.
“With our focus very much on seeking to delay the spread to reduce the peak impact and protect the most vulnerable, planning around NHS capacity is vital.
“We need to free up capacity in our hospital settings and increase where we can the capacity there and in the community. So over the next 2 to 3 weeks we will scale down non urgent care so non urgent procedures are postponed.
“But patients have our assurance that all appointments will be rescheduled as quickly as possible as we get through the challenge to our NHS that COVID-19 presents.
“As we work to double our intensive care capacity, some lead time is needed to repurpose facilities and ensure staff receive the training they need.
“In all of this work, our urgent and life critical services such as cancer will be maintained.”
She added: “When I return to Parliament on Tuesday I will make a further statement on COVID-19 and give more detail on our preparations.”
NHS Tayside already planning shift
NHS Tayside is already in the process of gradually reducing non-urgent care in the next fortnight to free up staff to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, it has been revealed.
The health board is the latest in the country to decide to “downgrade or reduce” procedures in a bid to make staff available to deal with a “gradual” increase in cases.
We spoke to Professor James Chalmers, respiratory physician at NHS Tayside and the British Lung Foundation’s chair of respiratory research, as part of a wide-ranging discussion on the outbreak, how the health service is preparing and what the public should do.
The respiratory expert said NHS Tayside has already started to down-scale non-urgent care to allow doctors to focus their attentions on those suffering from suspected coronavirus.
We are moving non-urgent things, non-cancer appointments, where we think it’s going to be okay to move those appointments.
However, the doctor provided assurances that the health board would only be down-scaling appointments that did not have an impact on patient safety.
He said: “Gradually over the next week to two weeks the NHS is going to downgrade or reduce those things that can wait and move the frontline staff to dealing with what we expect to be a gradual increase in cases of coronavirus.
“We are moving non-urgent things, non-cancer appointments, where we think it’s going to be okay to move those appointments.
“But we’re trying to keep those urgent surgeries, those urgent medical procedures going because that’s very important that care for things other than coronavirus keeps going.
“We’ve reduced the number of visits that we have from people taking part in research studies so the doctors and nurses can focus on seeing people at the front door.”
‘We hope that people will understand’
NHS Tayside medical director Professor Peter Stonebridge said: “We are starting to make plans to increase capacity across our acute hospitals to ensure we can manage demand and continue to provide care and treatment to those who need it.
“As part of this we are currently looking at stepping down some non-urgent procedures or clinics from next week. We know that this may be upsetting for patients but we hope that people will understand why we need to take these exceptional measures.
“The decision to cancel any operation or appointment is not one we take lightly and all efforts will be made to ensure that cancellations are kept to a minimum.”
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