Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that schools in Scotland could close and hospitals could postpone non-urgent treatment if the coronavirus outbreak continues to escalate.
The first minister said such measures could be considered for schools and hospitals, although she stressed that no decisions had been taken.
Ms Sturgeon also revealed plans were in place to increase capacity at under-pressure health centres, including potentially using facilities which are not routinely used, as she confirmed that she expected the number of Scottish cases of the virus to rise later today.
There are currently 16 confirmed coronavirus cases in Scotland, including four in the NHS Grampian area and one in Tayside, but an update is due to be released by the Scottish Government this afternoon.
Ms Sturgeon told the BBC this morning that the number was likely to increase again.
“As of now we have 16 confirmed cases. I expect that to rise. I expect that to rise today. I expect to see it rise, perhaps rapidly, in the days to come,” she said.
“It is now very likely that we are facing a significant outbreak of coronavirus across the UK, and we’re preparing for that.
“What is not inevitable is the scale of that impact. There is still lots we can do right now to try to contain the spread of the virus for a bit longer.
We’re looking at plans that would allow us to increase capacity, not just general hospital capacity, but increase intensive care and high dependency capacity as well.”
“But when that ceases to be possible there are actions we can take to try to slow down the spread of the virus, and to crucially reduce the number of people who are going to be infected at any one time.
“That’s crucial, because obviously the fewer people infected at any one time, the less the pressure will be on our National Health Service.
“That said, there is likely to be a significant pressure on the National Health Service, so we’re also planning to scale up the capacity that it has to treat people.”
Asked about any plans to close schools at short notice, Ms Sturgeon confirmed that all options were being considered.
“There has been a lot of talk of school closures and clearly that is one of the measures that has been implemented in other countries, and it is one of several measures that could be considered here,” she said.
“But I want to stress that there has no decision been taken on that.
“We’re seeking to make sure we’re taking decisions in good order, but also that we’re taking decisions that are really strongly underpinned by scientific advice.
“There are quite difficult balances and quite difficult judgements to be made here.”
The SNP leader also spoke about proposals to ensure the health service can cope with a surge in demand during the outbreak, although she emphasised that most people who became infected would have mild symptoms.
“The kind of things the NHS plans for is, yes, if necessary, to postpone non-urgent treatment to make sure that the capacity is there for more urgent cases, people who need hospital care,” she told the Politics Scotland programme.
“We’re also looking at plans that would allow us to increase capacity, not just general hospital capacity, but increase intensive care and high dependency capacity as well, so that those services are there.
“So there are a whole range of things that are under consideration and will move into implementation.”
Not all of these things may prove to be necessary, but it is important that we’re planning for worst-case scenarios.”
Pressed on how capacity could be increased, Ms Sturgeon said: “There are facilities that we can use that are perhaps not used routinely.
“You will have heard in recent times talk of perhaps encouraging – if necessary, and I keep stressing that – healthcare workers who have retired from practice to come back in, so we’ve got additional staff.
“It may require procuring additional equipment.
“The point I’m making is that there are plans in place that are being carefully refined and worked through right now.
“Not all of these things may prove to be necessary, but it is important that we’re planning for worst-case scenarios.”
Ms Sturgeon added that efforts were being made to protect vulnerable people during the outbreak.
“We’re looking very closely at what the Scottish Government can do within our own powers and resources, and anything we can do we will do,” she said.
“But much of the power here lies in the hands of the UK Government, and we’re having constructive discussions.
“I would hope to see in days to come more announcements like the one on statutory sick pay last week. I think the rules around Universal Credit for example need to be relaxed.
“We don’t want people who are doing the right thing, self-isolating to limit the spread of this virus, being sanctioned in terms of their benefits.
“There are good discussions under way on all of this.
“The UK Budget this week is important, because I think inevitably this will require additional resources being made available by the UK Government.”