Paying the price of the COVID-19 outbreak

HBI has been talking to a lot of operators and analysts this week about the COVID-19 outbreak. Whatever their assessment of the current effect on their sectors is, one thing is clear: it is already impacting businesses and things will get worse before they get better.

Concerns about capacity, problems with sourcing equipment (ironically much of it, face masks included, from China), worries about managing staff illness and educating the reluctant public about why they shouldn’t rush in for treatment when they suspect they have the virus is consuming many of those we spoke to. Most have weekly, if not daily committees to review the latest news and tweak their ‘battle plans’.

There is widespread consensus that hospitals, ever in the front line at challenging times, will feel the brunt worst. Under-pressure public systems already at bursting point from London to Delhi have been reaching out out to their for-profit friends who have greater spare capacity to cope.

But the question is to what extent this will be a gentleman’s agreement – and to what extent is it likely to be imposed. Will beds be freely given, or if needed, sequestered? Could any moratorium on elective procedures placed on public hospitals be extended into the for-profit sector? And who, if anyone, will prop up a group should its finances falter?

Every cloud, even one as grim as this, has a silver lining for some. There are, of course, sectors that will benefit. Seldom has the spotlight on telehealth shone brighter. As one operator put it, you can’t catch COVID-19 through a screen. The statistics for Chinese teleconsultation platform Ping An (showing a tenfold increase in new patients over a two week period from January 22) is little short of remarkable.

It’s hard to imagine a better time to win over a sceptical public to the benefits of seeing a doctor they need never shake hands with.

We would welcome your thoughts on this story. Email your views to David Farbrother or call 0207 183 3779.