Private and independent sector hospitals are to remain on standby for use by the NHS in case a second wave of coronavirus cases sweeps across the country.
The hospitals have been under-utilised, some critics say, since it was agreed that they should stop carrying out “non-urgent” elective procedures on individuals with private medical insurance (PMI).
Emergency NHS “field” hospitals – including one with 3,600 beds – have also been barely used since they were set up.
Known as “Nightingale Hospitals”, they, too, will remain on standby in case of a pandemic rebound.
But NHS bosses said the precautionary steps are part of a wider package of plans to ramp up non-Covid-19 urgent services over the next six weeks as the country attempts to return to normal.
In a letter to local trusts and GPs, the head of NHS England said urgent outpatient appointments should go ahead and routine surgery could be restarted.
But GPs are being encouraged to continue to use online and telephone consultations.
There has been a massive drop in hospital patients without Covid-19 over the past two weeks in England.
Accident & Emergency visits have fallen by 29% as there have been far fewer road traffic accidents and the lockdown has put an end to much of everyday life.
Managing a rise in demand for those services while ensuring routine NHS elective work is carried out – in addition to the ongoing treatment of Covid-19 patients – will prove challenging over the coming weeks, experts said.