Hospitals are being asked to carry out more video-based consultations of patients to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
NHS England hopes the move will reduce the number of people in hospitals and lower the potential for transmission.
Meanwhile, the government is launching a major public health campaign urging people to regularly wash their hands.
Officials believe up to a fifth of the workforce may be off sick during the peak of an epidemic in the UK.
The number of people diagnosed with coronavirus in Scotland has risen to three, bringing the total number of UK cases to 53.
What do I need to know about the coronavirus?
- HOW IS THE UK PLANNING FOR AN OUTBREAK: How prepared are we?
- WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS? A simple guide
- HOW TO SELF-ISOLATE: What you need to know
- WHERE ARE WE WITH A VACCINE? Progress so far
- A VISUAL GUIDE TO THE OUTBREAK: Virus maps and charts
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told BBC Breakfast that up to 80% of the population could be infected “in the worst case scenario”.
He said it was likely “a few” older and more vulnerable people will die if they become infected.
However, he stressed that flu kills 8,000 people in the UK, in an average year.
Asked whether Wuhan-style lockdown measures could be imposed in towns and cities across the UK, Prof Whitty said it would be “very unlikely”.
Hospital trusts and other health organisations have been sent a letter from NHS England outlining steps they should take to prepare for a possible surge in the number of patients.
They have been asked to carry out more video consultations from home and to consider ways to increase the availability of hospital beds and resources.
The government’s “action plan”, announced on Tuesday, already set out proposals to bring back retired doctors and nurses and to free up beds by cancelling non-urgent operations.
The new advice for hospitals coincides with the launch of an expanded information campaign promoting frequent hand-washing, for at least 20 seconds each time.
Government adverts across print, radio, online and billboards will urge people to wash their hands when they arrive at home or work, after they blow their nose, cough or sneeze, and before eating or handling food.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said washing hands regularly was the “single most important thing that an individual can do”.
About 90,000 people have been infected globally since the outbreak of coronavirus in Hubei province, China, in December, with cases in more than 50 countries and more than 3,000 deaths.
Meanwhile, the government is also set to formally declare coronavirus a “notifiable disease” in England.
The Department for Health and Social Care told the BBC that the move would mitigate the impact on business by helping companies seek compensation through insurance policies – some of which require such a declaration.
The Scottish government declared it “notifiable” last month.
Last week, a British man who was infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan became the first UK citizen to die from the virus.
There are four stages to the government’s response: containing the virus’ spread, delaying it, mitigating its impact once it becomes established, and a research programme to improve diagnostics and treatment.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stressed that “we should be going about our business as usual.”
He said schools should stay open “if possible” and follow advice from Public Health England.
The government’s plans warn that while the vast majority of patients in the UK will have a mild to moderate illness, similar to seasonal flu, a minority will require hospital care and a small proportion could die.
There are no estimates given in the plans but they do warn of an increase in deaths, particularly among the elderly and those with existing health conditions.
Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College, London, said the government had “days rather than weeks” to start making decisions about rolling out elements of its plans.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the time for action is “very soon” and the measures would be rolled out in a “phased way” to reduce the peak burden on the NHS.
In other developments:
- The World Bank has committed $ 12bn (£9.4bn) in aid for developing countries grappling with the spread of the coronavirus
- The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has urged the government to provide support for workers who do not qualify for statutory sick pay in the wake of the coronavirus. People on low incomes, zero-hours contracts and the self-employed might be tempted to attend work if no benefits were offered, it said
- Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to provide emergency funding to support the NHS through the outbreak, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has warned the NHS was already at 94% bed occupancy before coronavirus hit
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