NEARLY one in three patients in intensive care in Scotland is now being treated for complications caused by coronavirus.

The figure emerged as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed that breast, cervical and bowel cancer screening is being suspended to help free up NHS staff and reduce the risk of virus exposure to patients.

The Scottish Exhibition Centre (SEC) in Glasgow will also be converted into a temporary NHS hospital capable of accommodating up to 300 patients within two weeks, and potentially more than 1000 if necessary.

The number of people admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 has increased more than four-fold in a week, from 23 to 108, with NHS Scotland braced for an expected surge in cases in April.

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There are around 350 intensive care unit (ICU) beds currently, up from a pre-outbreak capacity of 190, with the Scottish Government working towards creating 700 in total.

It also means that, on the basis of known cases, 7% of people infected with coronavirus in Scotland are ending up in intensive care. However, Scotland’s chief medical officer (CMO) Dr Catherine Calderwood stressed that the 1,563 confirmed cases is likely to be a “significant underestimate” as most people are not being tested and only experience mild symptoms.

It comes days after research from England, Wales and Northern Ireland found that the mortality rate among critically ill coronavirus patients is running at just under 48%, based on 775 admissions since the end of February. Of these, 79 had died, 86 survived and had been discharged, with the remaining 610 still fighting for their lives in ICU.

The majority of deaths had occurred in males, patients who were overweight or obese, and people aged over 70 – although nine of those who died were aged between 16 and 49.

The research was carried out by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC), but there is no comparable data yet available in Scotland.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said there had not yet been enough admission to ICUs in Scotland to provide an accurate picture.

She said: “Scottish clinicians are fully engaged in data collection and monitoring, and information will be published for Scotland as soon as it is statistically robust.”

Scotland was the last part of the UK to report its first case of coronavirus, on March 1 – more than four weeks after England.

The number of deaths to date in Scotland – 47 – is also dwarfed by 1,284 in England. The pattern so far in the UK is roughly in line with World Health Organisation predictions, based on the outcomes among 44,600 patients in China.

The WHO says that around 5% of coronavirus patients will become critically ill with respiratory failure, septic shock, or organ failure, with half of this cohort dying.

Confirming today that a further six patients in Scotland had died after testing positive for Covid-19, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government had taken the “difficult decision” suspend cancer screening following recommendations from the CMO and NHS National Services Scotland.

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The move will also affect diabetic eye screening and abdominal ultrasounds in men to check for aortic aneurysms, but not screenings for pregnant women and newborn babies.

“This is not a decision we have taken lightly,” said Ms Sturgeon. “However, it is important to maximise the ability of the NHS to cope over the coming weeks.”

She stressed that the the decision will be reviewed in 12 weeks or “earlier if evidence suggests restarting is feasible”.

Dr Calderwood added: “It’s a balance of risks that we believe is worth taking. The main concern was that people would miss their screening appointments, perhaps because they were self-isolating or were choosing not to attend in order that they would not come into contact with people.”

Dr Calderwood said travel to screening appointments or the use of mobile breast screening vans in rural areas posed too high a risk of spreading the virus, adding that laboratory staff who would previously have analysed smear test or stool samples for signs of cancer can now be “re-purposed to work in coronavirus labs and help towards that vital increase in testing”.

She said anyone due to have a mammogram, smear test or be sent a bowel screening kit over the next three months will be re-invited to take part once the moratorium lifts, but that anyone who thinks they have cancer symptoms such as a breast lump should contact their GP.

A dedicated helpline for anyone with concerns about screening has also been established via NHS Inform.

All elective and non-urgent surgery including hip and knee replacements and some cancer operations have already been cancelled across Scotland to free up beds, with non-urgent chemotherapy and radiotherapy also delayed due to the high risk the virus poses to patients with weakened immune systems.

Ms Sturgeon confirmed that 5000 medical students and retired healthcare staff have so far offered to bolster NHS resources during the crisis, with “most” expected to be offered fixed-term appointments.

By lunchtime yesterday, 10,000 people in Scotland had also signed up to volunteer through the Scotland Cares scheme, to help those in their own communities.

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Ms Sturgeon also confirmed that Police Scotland had issued just 25 fixed-penalty notices over the weekend to people caught breaching the terms of the coronavirus lockdown.

Meanwhile, details were also unveiled for plans to turn the SEC into a field hospital as cases of Covid-19 escalate.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said 3000 of NHS Scotland’s 13,000 acute hospital beds have already been ring-fenced for coronavirus patients, in addition to the 700-bed ICU target, but that the SEC site would be deployed if needed.

The site has been chosen on the basis of its proximity to other hospitals in the west of Scotland and established infrastructure, said Ms Freeman.

It will be overseen by Jill Young, the former chief executive of the Golden Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank.

“It is important to emphasise that this will be a hospital staffed by the NHS with full clinical, medical and infection control standards,” said Ms Freeman.

It came as Professor Neil Ferguson, an expert in mathematical biology at Imperial College London who has been helping to model the outbreak for the UK Government, said it appeared that the epidemic “is just about slowing in the UK right now”.

Prof Ferguson said a third to 40% of people do not get any symptoms and estimated that 2-3% of the UK population has already been infected.

However, he cautioned that the data was not yet good enough to say for sure that social distancing measures had been effective. He added that antibody tests to identify individuals who have already had the virus should be ready for use in “days rather than weeks”.