Budget: Extra £5 Billion for the NHS to Combat COVID-19 

Peter Russell

March 11, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news in Medscape UK's Coronavirus Resource Centre.    

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK increased by 83 to 456 on Wednesday, the biggest increase in a day.

Eight patients with coronavirus have now died in hospitals in the UK. The two latest cases announced today were older patients with underlying health conditions, one at George Eliot Hospital NHS Trust in Nuneaton, the other at Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust.

The World Health Organisation also confirmed the outbreak was now classed as a pandemic.

Commenting via the Science Media Centre, Dr Nathalie MacDermott, NIHR academic clinical lecturer, King’s College London, said: "This decision will likely have been made on the basis of the majority of the world’s continents now seeing significant and ongoing person to person spread of SARS-COV2. The change of term does not alter anything practically as the world has been advised for the last few weeks to prepare for a potential pandemic, which has hopefully been taken seriously by all countries. The use of this term however highlights the importance of countries throughout the world working cooperatively and openly with one another and coming together as a united front in our efforts to bring this situation under control."

The latest UK figures came as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, delivered his first Budget, which commentators said suggested the Government was serious about the threat posed by the coronavirus.

However, health experts said the Chancellor's measures fell short of long-term solutions to fix the health and social care systems.

He also made income threshold announcements to help solve the doctors' pensions crisis.

Emergency Funding for COVID-19

The Budget's headline announcement was a £30 billion "fiscal stimulus" to combat the effects of the virus, of which £5 billion was earmarked to support the NHS and other public services.

Additionally the NHS could expect £6 billion in new money over the lifetime of this Parliament, the Chancellor pledged.

The NHS would get the resources it required, he said. "Whether it's research for a vaccine, recruiting thousands of returning staff, or supporting our brilliant doctors and nurses…

"…whether its millions of pounds or billions of pounds…

"…whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS."

Budget Reaction

Commenting on the speech, Alex Harris, head of global policy at Wellcome, said it was "a vital commitment from the UK government in response to extraordinary times".

The right-wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute lambasted Mr Sunak for "spending like a drunken sailor", but health campaigners said it was "astonishing" that the Chancellor had skipped extra investment in social care.

The Royal College of Physicians described the Budget as a "missed opportunity". Its president, Andrew Goddard, said: "Doctors are working incredibly hard under enormous pressure but their situation will not improve until the whole system – health, social care, and public health - gets the funding it needs."

Sally Copley, director of policy and campaigns at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "If we do not fix our broken social care system, the most vulnerable in our society will continue to bear the brunt."

Prof John Appleby, chief economist at the Nuffield Trust, agreed that "failure to announce any real action to overhaul social care is the elephant in the room".

While the emergency funding for coronavirus was welcome, "the NHS starts in a deep hole after a decade of underfunding and understaffing", he said.

New and Faster Testing

Ahead of the Budget, NHS England (NHSE) and Public Health England (PHE) announced a boost to coronavirus testing abilities.

A "highly sensitive" test to detect the virus was being rolled out to laboratories across the country, the agencies said.

Currently, around 1500 tests are being processed every day at PHE labs. However, NHSE and PHE said that with demand for testing expected to soar, the NHS was preparing to deal with a 500% increase in the number of tests carried out.

NHS laboratory services across the country were being asked to bring new capacity online, while other labs were beginning checks.

An extra 8000 more samples would be analysed every day of the week with the new resources, the NHS and PHE said.

Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England, said: “Wider testing is important as it will help to manage demand as the number of people being tested increases in the coming weeks. This will ensure that PHE and the NHS have the most robust system possible to understand what is happening with the virus.

“PHE has continued to process the vast majority of test results within 24 hours of receiving the sample in a PHE laboratory and returning them to NHS colleagues, and will continue to do so."

So far 10 NHS microbiology services have stepped up their capacity, this will be followed by 29 NHS pathology networks allocating further testing to some of their 122 services, while ensuring day to day analysis for other conditions continues.

PHE and the NHS said they would continue to turn the vast majority of test results around within one day, with those who test positive urgently contacted.

To support this, the NHS was introducing seven regional co-ordination centres.

Health Minister Tests Positive for Coronavirus

Nadine Dorries, the Minister for health, said on Tuesday that she had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and was self-isolating at home.

The Department of Health and Social Care said she had first noticed symptoms last Thursday – the same day as she attended a function where the Prime Minister was present.

Ms Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, who began her working life as a nurse, said on Twitter it had been "pretty rubbish" but she hoped she was over the worst.

The Labour MP Rachael Maskell said she had since been told to self-isolate as she had met Ms Dorries last week.

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, told the Science Media Centre that the case showed how easily the virus could spread. "As with all these cases, it will be important to understand where this infection came from – whether or not it was from a known high risk area, or part of an unknown community transmission chain," he said.

He added: "That's why we have to deal with this thing now – in 10 days' time we might be facing a totally different proposition."

Editor's note, 11th March 2020: This article was updated to include the latest deaths from COVID-19.

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