Temporary regional respiratory hospitals are to be set up across Northern Ireland to treat patients when the coronavirus outbreak reaches its height.
The announcement comes as the Department of Health (DoH) admitted that Northern Ireland's existing hospitals would not have the capacity to cope with critical care patients when the pandemic reaches its forecasted peak.
Efforts are also being made to procure ventilators for the treatment of Covid-19. There are currently 139 ventilators with a further 40 having been ordered and set to be operational before the end of March.
A further 650 ventilators are "currently being procured", while talks are also ongoing with a company in the Republic of Ireland.
Further orders have also been placed for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
The DoH announced sweeping changes to the health service to prepare for the Covid-19 surge.
Northern Ireland's first Covid-19 primary care centre opened at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry on Wednesday.
Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry is expected to follow suit as specialist treatment centre for the virus.
Other measures announced by the DoH included the recatogorisation of patients based on need, with patients deemed least urgent facing months of delays.
There will also be an end to general hospital visiting, with "very limited exceptions".
Hospital services will be reconfigured and all medically fit patients will be urgently discharged. Trusts will also be maximising and utilising all spare capacity in residential, nursing and domiciliary care.
Trusts have also been asked to provide hotel accommodation for health staff affected by isolation in their own households so they can continue to work.
The plans are detailed in a letter to health trust chief executives from the Department’s Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly.
Mr Pengelly’s letter to colleagues states: "Our modelling suggests that at the peak of the outbreak in Northern Ireland, our existing hospital estate may not have sufficient capacity to provide critical care to the number of patients who will require it.
"We are therefore moving immediately to develop large regional, temporary, respiratory hospitals. These will be a regional resource and will require a regional approach in terms of staffing and access. More details of how these will work in practice will be shared when they are ready.
“Even if the social distancing measures have the impact we hope, our modelling still indicates that we will require more critical care capacity than is currently available.”
Patients not deemed in need of urgent care will have their treatment delayed by a number of months.
“In some cases, it is recognised that this may mean that other services are temporarily reduced as the focus is on providing essential services and helping those most at risk access the best possible treatment," Mr Pengelly's letter stated.
“It is therefore suggested that clinicians should begin to categorise patients into priority groups. The lowest prioritisation would be where treatment can be delayed for 2-3 months with no predicted negative outcome. Urgent and emergency treatments should continue to be given top priority.”