Northern Ireland health authorities are planning to send Covid-19 patients to England if they require further clinical treatment.
Antrim Area Hospital is ready for drive-through testing for the virus and expects patients will receive results within four hours. They will be swabbed in the nose and mouth then told to go home and self-isolate while awaiting the outcome.
Doctors are attempting to contain the spread of the virus until the summer, when it will be easier for hard-pressed health services to manage and the infection could go dormant.
Most cases are expected to be relatively mild and may simply involve self-isolation and care at home in Northern Ireland.
Dr Seamus O’Reilly, medical director for the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, said: “If the test comes back positive there is a very well-rehearsed process that we do in conjunction with our colleagues in England.”
That involves assessing whether the patient requires care in a hospital then planning the logistics of the move.
“We identify an infectious diseases bed in England, if possible, to transfer the patient to.
“If we cannot transfer the patient across for whatever reason, the infectious diseases beds in the Royal (The Royal Victoria in west Belfast) will be used for that purpose, that is ward 7A.”
Tests are analysed in Belfast’s virology lab and the number which can be conducted has been increased.
Results will be ready within four hours, Dr O’Reilly added.
He said: “The whole idea is to contain it as long as possible, we get into the spring time where it is a little bit warmer, experience would tell you the virus may not be as virulent and may actually go dormant over spring and summer time.
“The longer we can buy time for that to happen the better.
“It allows time for research into the virus, to look at different treatments and perhaps in a year or a year-and-a-half’s time, a vaccine.”
One person in Northern Ireland has been diagnosed with the condition so far.
Meanwhile, Stormont’s First and Deputy First Ministers have scaled back a US investment trip to take part in emergency meetings on Covid-19.
Arlene Foster said the infection is the top priority of ministers in Belfast.
She and Michelle O’Neill cancelled plans for the New York leg of their itinerary at the start of next week. Economy Minister Diane Dodds will be fulfilling engagements in New York instead.
Mrs Foster told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme that their top priority as leaders of the Executive “is to make sure we are in a good position in relation to Covid-19 and the coronavirus and that we have all the planning in place”.
She added: “So we took the decision over the weekend that we felt we needed to be here for emergency meetings that take place on Monday of next week.
“It is important that we are part of that and that we are involved in that so that is why we have decided to limit the trip.”
The DUP leader and Sinn Fein vice-president are still anticipated to travel to Washington DC for a series of political meetings in the US capital later in the week.
Health officials in Northern Ireland have said routine hospital appointments and surgeries may be postponed if Covid-19 infects large numbers of people.
Wards could be set aside and more critical care beds added to the 100 already available.
The establishment of special pods separate from emergency departments and home testing kits may also be needed if the virus spreads widely through the community.
Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said medical staff are in a phase of containment.
He added: “What we are doing is planning for all eventualities.”
One person in Northern Ireland has been diagnosed with the condition.
Around 99% of people affected will make a full recovery, while 95% will suffer mild to moderate symptoms which will not require hospital treatment, Dr McBride added.
That is based on data from the source of the infection in China and those numbers will change as officials receive information from European systems more aligned with Northern Ireland’s.