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Nightingale hospitals ‘not being used’ amid surging Covid cases and NHS staff shortages

The majority of the seven Nightingale hospitals are yet to treat coronavirus patients during the second wave – despite a significant rise in London cases and across the UK, reports suggest. 

While the Exeter Nightingale has been treating Covid patients since mid-November, the flagship London Nightingale has been emptied of its beds and ventilators with medics warning there are not enough staff to run the facilities as they were originally intended: mini intensive care units.

The NHS has told trusts to start preparing to use the overflow facilities in the coming weeks and yet bosses have failed to explain how they will be staffed, according to The Telegraph.

The latest NHS England data, shared among NHS bosses, and seen by The Independent on Monday, reveals that across all NHS sites, there were 20,407 coronavirus patients being treated by the NHS on Monday, compared to a 12 April peak of 18,974.

London is under particular strain as cases have surged to 4,957 patients – an increase of 47 per cent in a week and up more than 200 per cent since the end of the second national lockdown on 2 December.

The impact of this year’s “cancelled Christmas” is not yet known because of a lag between infection and admission but, either way, medical staff are worried with Dr Yvonne Doyle, the medical director at Public Health England (PHE), saying today: “This very high level of infection is of growing concern at a time when our hospitals are at their most vulnerable.”

The sites – built this year to cater for the outbreak of Covid – came at a cost of around £220m and were hailed as the NHS’ saving grace back in April when they opened. However, NHS bosses now say they do not have the manpower to use them – even if they wanted to. 

According to The Telegraph, London’s Nightingale – located at the Excel centre – not only had no patients on Monday, but had been stripped altogether, with beds and ventilators missing. Images showed partition boards, which separated beds, stacked up outside while signs directing ambulances were discarded on the floor.

Signage is seen outside the Nightingale Hospital North West at Manchester Central Convention Complex

A contractor who helped supply and set up the hospital told the newspaper it was “disgusting” that it had been dismantled and a colleague, someone who worked at the site two weeks ago, said the facilities inside had been “ripped out”.

Elsewhere, Birmingham and Sunderland’s Nightingale sites are said to be empty but on standby (ready to open in 72 hours, if needs be), while Manchester’s is open for “non-Covid care”, Harrogate’s is being used as a “specialist diagnostics centre” and Bristol’s deployed for “local NHS services”.

Time and again, though, the issue comes back to staffing. Dr Alison Pittard, the dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, warned the media today: “We can build physical capacity, we can get equipment and consumables relatively quickly, but it takes many years to train staff to do the job, and no more so than in critical care.”

Meanwhile, Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said it “is not ‘just the case’ of using the Nightingale Hospital as there are simply no staff for them to run as they were originally intended”.

“They could play a role perhaps if used as rehabilitation units for those recovering but, again, where do we find the specialist staff?” he said, adding: “The NHS simply does not have the capacity to spare anyone.”