Hospitals in England will be able to use private hospitals and staff under a deal with the NHS to maintain services as Omicron cases surge, avoiding delays in treatment for patients with illnesses such as cancer.
The move comes as hospitals have also been told to find extra beds in gyms and education centres owing to rising numbers of Covid patients.
The three-month agreement means private healthcare staff and facilities will be on standby to support the NHS if they need it and to maintain services for patients that can be referred including some of those waiting for cancer surgery.
Nightingale hubs are already being created in the grounds of some hospitals as part of a move to create up to 4,000 extra beds.
Announcing the deal, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “This agreement demonstrates the collaboration across our healthcare services to create an additional safeguard that ensures people can continue to get the care they need from our world-leading NHS, whenever they need it.”
The move has been put in place to make sure the health service is not overwhelmed and avoid implementing further Covid restrictions on socialising at pubs, clubs and sports venues as have been introduced by Scotland and Wales.
Last week, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said more than one in six NHS trusts across England had declared a critical incident due to Covid pressures in recent weeks, adding that the Omicron variant was putting “very real” pressure on the health service.
A Whitehall source told the Telegraph: “We are going to do everything we can to avoid more restrictions … Our lines of defence through vaccines, testing and antivirals are crucial and holding up but we are also boosting NHS capacity as much as we can.”
“Sajid wants the NHS to make use of the independent sector if needed. The aim is to ensure as much capacity as possible is available to help the NHS get through the Omicron wave.”
In March 2020, a similar deal costing about £400m was agreed, when private hospitals provided more beds, ventilators and thousands of extra healthcare staff to help the NHS fight against Covid. At the time, 20,000 staff were offered, including 10,000 nurses and 700 doctors.
The number of hospitalisations have been slower to rise than Covid cases, with ministers buoyed by the booster rollout. However, hospitals have struggled due to NHS staff being among the hundreds of thousands of people self-isolating due to the rapidly increasing number of Omicron cases.
More than 140,000 more people have tested positive for coronavirus in the UK. A further 141,472 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded as of 9am on Sunday, the fourth consecutive day that infection numbers have fallen.