A DISEASE expert has warned hospitals could be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients if people do not follow Government advice.

Professor Martin Llewelyn of Brighton and Sussex Medical School said NHS staff were already working “day and night” to respond to the outbreak.

The veteran medic said it was “not knowable” how long the Government’s lockdown measures will need to be in place.

He urged people to follow health advice so hospitals could cope with the pandemic.

“The thing we’re most worried about is the rate at which this problem has emerged and the rapid increase we’re seeing in hospitals,” Prof Llewelyn said.

“I’ve been in the NHS for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like what’s going on at the moment.

“If there is a rise in the number of people coming to hospital and needing hospital treatment, particularly needing ventilators, it has the potential to overwhelm the NHS.

“What doctors are most worried about is that there will be so many cases in hospitals that we won’t be able to deliver the care we need to deliver.

“The only way to prevent that is to stop transmission.

“That is why people really need to do what they’re told and comply with instructions about social distancing so we can reduce the peak of that surge so doctors are able to deliver care and save lives.”

The disease expert said the pandemic will only end when a vaccine is developed or if countries achieve herd immunity.

But Prof Llewelyn said it would take at least a year for scientists to create a vaccine.

And he said doctors had no idea how immune those who recover from coronavirus are to catching it a second time.

“The biggest known unknown is immunity,” the expert said.

“We don’t know how long immunity lasts.

“ It could be a weak, short immunity or a strong, long-lasting immunity.

“Both developing a vaccine and achieving herd immunity are dependent on this immune response.”

Researching coronavirus immunity will also be crucial in finding out whether it could become a seasonal disease like the winter flu.

“It’s certainly possible it could become a seasonal disease,” Prof Llewelyn said.

“The extent to which this might become seasonal is dependent on whether we get long-lasting immunity.

“But it’s quite likely there will be a second wave of infection in the winter.”

The lack of a specific coronavirus treatment is another major obstacle for doctors.

“As for most viral infections, we don’t have specific antiviral treatments for coronavirus but there are clinical trials going on in the NHS,” Prof Llewelyn said.

“Right now patients are treated with oxygen and sometimes breathing equipment like ventilators.

“My understanding is the number of ventilators we usually have in Brighton is similar to national levels.

“But I know the hospital is working very rapidly to increase that number.”

Prof Llewelyn said the biggest risk of contracting coronavirus comes from catching it from an infected surface.

That is why washing your hands and not touching your face are two crucial pieces of advice for the public, he said.

“The main way of transmission is through droplets coughed by the people who are infected,” the expert said.

“Those droplets are quite large and fall quite quickly to the ground.

“That’s why we have these recommendation about the distance needed between people.

“We don’t expect many people to be breathing in droplets.

“But the droplets can allow the virus to survive on surfaces.

“That’s why it’s important to wash your hands regularly.

“Don’t put anything in your mouth unless you’ve washed your hands first.

Prof Llewelyn said masks are mostly unnecessary for going out in public.

But he urged people to be careful to lessen the risk of catching the virus.

“In the NHS I know staff are working day and night,” he said.

“So what the public can do to help them is to follow Public Health England and Government advice.

“That gives the NHS breathing room.”

Prof Llewelyn was speaking in a personal capacity.