NHS Nightingale, the UK’s largest hospital, is due to open this week in London’s Docklands just nine days after military logistics teams were first scrambled to build a new facility for coronavirus patients.
The temporary hospital at the cavernous Excel conference centre, which will be managed by Barts Health NHS Trust, will open its doors to a small number of patients this week and will expand to accommodate up to 3,500 people when fully operational, according to NHS England.
The Nightingale — built jointly by civilian contractors and military specialists — is the first in a series of field hospitals under construction across the UK to provide extra capacity for virus sufferers requiring ventilation and critical care. There are plans to build other medical facilities in Birmingham, Manchester, Harrogate, Glasgow, Cardiff and Llanelli in Wales and at a former prison near Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The number of UK deaths from coronavirus rose sharply by 381 on Tuesday, bringing the total toll to 1,789 since the outbreak began.
Colonel Ashleigh Boreham, commanding officer at the army’s 256 City of London Field Hospital, heads the military advisory team of reservists who helped convert Excel into a medical centre. He has served for almost three decades, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, but says this is the “biggest job” he has ever done.
“We literally got a phone call, arrived here, met up with the NHS about nine days ago, sat around a table and . . . [drew] a plan up, over a brew,” Col Boreham said. “It’s a combination of medical planning, logistics, engineering, and what we would recognise as tasks that need to be done, like building beds, laying floors.”
The team — which deploys 60 personnel a day to the site — is also advising on systems for managing patient information.
Separately, a 30-strong military construction force from 36 Engineer Regiment has helped civilian contractors with plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.
The Nightingale will be used to treat coronavirus patients transferred from overstretched hospitals across London. Eventually, it will have more than 80 wards containing full ICU facilities and will be supported by standard services found in other NHS hospitals, such as pharmacies and therapy treatment. All staff will be offered accommodation on site in the hotels surrounding the conference centre.
In addition to NHS personnel, St John Ambulance will send 200 volunteers a day to the new hospital. They will work day and night shifts supporting nurses, looking after patients as they undergo treatment and assisting those in rehabilitation and recovery. Cabin staff from Virgin Airlines and easyJet also being offered work at the Nightingale, performing non-clinical jobs such as changing beds.
Outside London, the government plans to set up temporary hospitals for coronavirus patients at Birmingham NEC, Manchester Conference Centre and the Harrogate Convention Centre.
The Scottish government has started work on a temporary hospital at Glasgow’s Scottish Event Campus. The hospital, which is being prepared with help from the military, aims to have an initial 300 beds available within two weeks, with possible expansion to 1,000 beds. The facility could be used for people who have been through hospital treatment and are recovering from their symptoms.
Meanwhile, Welsh authorities are planning a 2,000-bed facility at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, and a 500-bed hospital at the Llanelli Scarlets stadium, which is expected to be operational within a fortnight.
In Northern Ireland the former Maze prison outside Belfast — which formerly held thousands of Irish republican and pro-UK loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles — is being considered as a possible field hospital.
Part of the prison’s 360-acre site is used for the annual Balmoral agricultural show but most is unused. The region’s health department declined to confirm whether the jail would become a health facility, but said: “a number of options for expanding current capacity are under active consideration”.
Additional reporting by Mure Dickie in Edinburgh and Arthur Beesley in Dublin