NHS England has issued a confidential 48-hour tender for the immediate provision of online primary care consultation to help the health service cope with patient demand in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

The accelerated tender documents were issued to a group of 33 trusted NHS suppliers by NHS England National Commercial Procurement Hub, Digital Health News understands.

The tender is expected to be evaluated and awarded by midday on Monday, 23 March.

It was sent to the Procurement Hub’s approved suppliers under the Dynamic Purchasing System Framework for online consultations, which includes the likes of Babylon, PushDoctor, Ada Health, EMIS, LIVI and Visiba Care.

Suppliers were asked to bid on five lots, including text messaging, video consultations and automated triage.

Tina Marshall, UK country manager of Visiba Care, said: “We are ready to help the NHS to roll out the digital solutions they need to respond to the coronavirus outbreak as quickly as possible.

“Through the issuance of contracts to online GP providers, Visiba Care will be able to assist the rising demand of primary care consultations, safely, efficiently and responsible.

“We’ve already added the NHS 111 Covid-19 symptom checker to our app and are offering rapid training to our partners to roll-out their digital healthcare provision.”

Graham Kendall, director of the Digital Healthcare Council, added: “We strongly welcome the rapid procurement of online GP services by NHS England. It is a vital step to support the ‘delay’ phase of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There has never been a more urgent time to adopt widespread digitisation across the country because it will help provide critical protection to both patients and healthcare professionals.”

The news, originally reported by Pulse, follows new coronavirus guidance being issued by NHS England and Improvement on 17 March to all NHS chief executives.

The letter provided advice on supporting wider population protection measures recently announced by the government, including Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government support for elderly and vulnerable people.

“A number of these individuals would be expected to have routine or urgent GP, diagnostic or outpatient appointments over the coming months. Providers should roll out remote consultations using video, telephone, email and text message services for this group as a priority and extend to cover all important routine activity as soon as possible, amongst others,” the guidance states.

It stresses that in-person consultations should quickly be phased out and “should only take place when absolutely necessary”.

The guidance also revealed David Probert, chief executive of Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, is leading a taskforce to support acute providers rapidly stand up their digital capabilities, with NHSX leading on primary care.

It follows previous guidance from NHS England, issued on 5 March, advising GP surgeries to go digital-first to in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The letter urged Britain’s 7,000 GP surgeries to assess patients online or via telephone and video appointments wherever possible.

The new guidance also provides advice on protecting NHS staff in the face of coronavirus.

Providers are advised to make adjustments so staff members at increased risk, such as pregnant women, can stay well at work. This may include working remotely or being moved to a low risk area.

It also suggests staff at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19 that are required to work from home should be considered to support remote consultations wherever possible.

“For otherwise healthy staff who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 required by PHE’s guidance to work from home, please consider how they can support the provision of telephone-based or digital / video- based consultations and advice for outpatients, 111, and primary care. For non-clinical staff, please consider how they can continue to contribute remotely,” it states.