In the quieted industrial Docklands area in East London stands a strange monument to Britain’s handling of the coronavirus crisis: a giant convention centre that was rapidly converted into a mass-casualty hospital for treating COVID-19 patients – and which now sits empty even as the country grapples with one of the worst outbreaks on the planet.
The NHS Nightingale London was hailed as a triumph of ingenuity when it was opened on April 3, just nine days after work began on converting the ExCeL convention centre into a temporary hospital with capacity for 4,000 beds. In an online ceremony, Prince Charles – who had just recovered from his own bout with the disease – said the NHS Nightingale was “an example, if ever one was needed, of how the impossible can be made possible.” With help from the military, work began on eight other Nightingale facilities around the United Kingdom.
But the patients never arrived in the expected numbers. The NHS Nightingale London will formally wind down operations Friday, after exactly six weeks of service. The debate over whether this is a good-news story, of how the country’s National Health Service held up better than expected, or yet more proof of how Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has mishandled the pandemic is expected to last much longer.
The converted convention centre was supposed to have played a key role in London’s battle against COVID-19, relieving the burden on the city’s other health care facilities by absorbing overflow patients. The goal was to avoid a repeat of the nightmare in Italy, where the pandemic struck earlier than in the U.K., catching the health care system unprepared, without enough beds or ventilators.
But while the U.K.’s death toll has now surpassed Italy’s, London’s Nightingale facility never treated more than a few dozen patients at once – the last of whom have now been moved to other hospitals in the city. The facility’s doctors and nurses have also been redeployed to hospitals that remain busy battling the outbreak in the capital, which has seen more than 26,000 confirmed cases.
A large digital sign blinked Thursday by the entrance to the near-deserted temporary hospital, warning doctors and nurses to don scrubs before entering. But the only people left working at the site were a handful of yellow-vested security guards.
The other Nightingales have been similarly underutilized. The 500-bed facility in England’s second-largest city, Birmingham, was put on standby May 5 after receiving no patients during its less than three weeks of operation. The government of Northern Ireland announced Wednesday that the Nightingale in Belfast would also be mothballed.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has run rampant in hospitals and long-term care homes across the U.K. As of Thursday, more than 233,000 people in the country had tested positive for the virus and more than 33,000 people had died. The latter number is surpassed only by the grim tally in the United States.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has portrayed the opening and closing of the NHS Nightingale as a sign that at least part of the system worked, demonstrating that, as bad as Britain’s outbreak has been, the government had made preparations for worse. The Nightingale facilities, he said, may yet be called upon if, as some fear, a second wave of the pandemic hits.
“I think it is a very, very positive thing that we haven’t had to use the full capacity of the Nightingale,” Mr. Hancock told London’s LBC radio station last week. “I’ve seen some media reports saying ‘the London Nightingale hospital isn’t needed any more – what a scandal.’ It’s absolutely fantastic for the nation that we haven’t had to fill up a 4,000-bed hospital with people with coronavirus. It’s good.”
But critics say the saga of the Nightingales – which were named for Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing – shows the government got its modelling wrong. Some have accused Mr. Johnson and his cabinet of devoting valuable time and resources to a public-relations stunt while a deadly outbreak tore through long-term-care homes around the country, where at least 9,700 COVID-19-related deaths have occurred. The government has also come under intense criticism for the slow pace of testing and the lack of personal protective equipment at hospitals around the country.
The London flagship was also put into service before it was ready. The Guardian newspaper reported that a shortage of critical-care nurses at the facility resulted in 50 patients being turned away during its first week of operation. Whispers began right away that the project was a white elephant.
The government has yet to reveal the cost of any of the Nightingale hospitals in England, though Mr. Hancock said the repurposed facilities were donated rent-free by their owners. The Scottish government said the building of the 1,000-bed Nightingale in Glasgow cost £43-million (about $74-million).
Another issue with the Nightingales is that they were built with limited capacities – able to treat patients with severe respiratory problems but unready to deal with other medical issues. COVID-19, however, has proved to cause a host of problems in its victims, sometimes including multiple organ failure, making doctors reluctant to transfer their patients to a facility that lacked cardiac and dialysis machines.
A nurse at another London hospital, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said one reason the Nightingale never proved necessary was that other hospitals repurposed entire wards into intensive-care units for coronavirus victims. That was possible because many sick and injured people who would normally have gone to a hospital stayed away in recent weeks for fear of contracting COVID-19.
Statistics released Thursday showed that the number of emergency room visits across the U.K. fell more than 50 per cent in April, leading to fears that hospitals will face a deluge of untreated illnesses when the pandemic finally passes.
There will be no royal ceremony to mark Friday’s shuttering of the NHS Nightingale London. Instead, the fact that it was never needed was highlighted by only a few low-key tweets from staff.
“Our last 2 patients were safely transferred at 4 pm today. Time now to mourn the 37% of our patients who died and applaud the NHS teams that continue the hard work of keeping our friends and families alive,” Richard Schilling, the facility’s deputy clinical director, wrote on May 6. “Sleep well [NHS Nightingale London]. I hope we don’t have to wake you up again.”
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