Monday 11 January 2021 2:38 pm

‘It was never going to happen’: Government faces backlash over 4,000-bed target for London's Nightingale Hospital

Health officials have slammed the government for setting a 4,000-bed target for London’s Nightingale Hospital, as the Excel Centre site today opened its doors as a mass vaccination centre following major staff shortages. 

The temporary hospital was swiftly erected in just two weeks last March to deal with a spiralling number of admissions to intensive care during the first wave of coronavirus.

Announcing the emergency site in east London last spring, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “The NHS Nightingale hospital will comprise two wards each of 2,000 people. With the help of the military and with NHS clinicians, we will make sure that we have the capacity that we need.”

The hospital was shuttered just six weeks later, with the UK’s leading scientists saying it was ready to be “reactivated” if the capital saw a spike in infections. 

But in a significant de-escalation, the hospital today reopened as one of seven mass vaccination centres around the country, after the NHS struggled to shore up enough staff to oversee intensive care units at the site.

It will also provide non-Covid related care for around 60 patients in a bid to ease pressure on London’s hospitals, which the mayor last week warned are on the verge of being overwhelmed. The figure amounts to just 1.5 per cent of the hospital’s original 4,000-bed target.

Nicki Credland, chair of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses, told City A.M. the government’s four-figure ballpark was “never going to happen”.

“The only people that ever said the Nightingale Hospital in London could be opened were politicians. All of the clinicians have always said there is no way you are going to open a 4,000-bed intensive care unit.”

Credland added: “For every one intensive care unit, you need six fully qualified intensive care nurses to be able to staff that bed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So times 4,000 by six, and that is more intensive care staff than we have in the entire country.”

It comes despite Covid patients making up almost half of all the capital’s hospital beds. More than 7,220 Londoners are currently in hospital with coronavirus, with over 1,000 on ventilators.  

Meanwhile, more than 800 patients a day are being admitted to hospital with coronavirus  — “the equivalent of a new St Thomas’ hospital full of Covid patients every day,” according to Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England. 

A spokesperson for the NHS told City A.M. as recently as last week that a “process was underway” to ensure London’s Nightingale Hospital was “reactivated and ready to admit patients should it be needed”.

They added that the hospital “will operate in the same way as the NHS Nightingale Manchester with staff drawn from across the health service in London”.

However, NHS England over the weekend said the hospital is not being used to treat critical care patients. 

A senior NHS official told City A.M. the major challenge surrounding capacity hinged on “staffing it given the severe pressures elsewhere across the London NHS hospitals”.

The Nightingale hospitals, which are spread across seven sites around the country, cost an estimated £200m. 

Though NHS Improvement refused to provide a breakdown of costs for each individual hospital, the site at London’s Excel Centre was originally kitted out to host the largest number of beds.

Worst is yet to come

It comes as Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer this morning issued a stark warning to the public that the next few weeks would be the worst in the pandemic for the NHS.

Whitty told BBC Breakfast: “I think everybody accepts that this is the most dangerous time we’ve really had in terms of numbers into the NHS at this point in time. Politicians from every political party, leaders from every nation, are looking at this incredibly seriously at the moment and all of the rest of us have to as well.”

“The new variant undoubtedly makes every situation more dangerous than the previous situation,” he said, adding that “people shouldn’t be leaving their home unless they absolutely have to, and if they do, keep their distance.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Cabinet ministers last night that the situation in the NHS was “parlous and perilous”, with fears hospitals will soon be overwhelmed if compliance does not improve.

Credland told City A.M: “The NHS is at the worst we’ve ever, ever seen it. It’s never been this bad.

“What people don’t understand is that they think this is all about Covid… but they don’t realise that if they happen to be walking down the road tomorrow and they slip on some black ice and they fracture their hip… they possibly won’t be able to get an ICU bed. Beds are full, whether they’re with Covid patients or not.”