London Nightingale field hospital unlikely to treat single patient

·4-min read
A view of the field hospital at St George’s in Tooting  (REUTERS)
A view of the field hospital at St George’s in Tooting (REUTERS)

A Nightingale field hospital built in south London as the NHS went on a “war footing” over Omicron is unlikely to treat a single patient, it emerged on Thursday.

London health chiefs said the fact that the Omicron wave had passed its peak in the capital, and had proved less likely to cause serious illness, meant the “surge” facility would not be needed at present.

Construction of the new facility, one of eight across the country that were each designed to treat about 100 covid patients, was hastily started at the end of December in a car park at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

Martin Machray, Covid incident director at NHS London, told the London Assembly’s health committee: “There is no plan at present to use that facility.”

He said the plan had been approved “in extremis”, when there were fears the NHS could run out of beds.


But the number of Covid patients in London hospitals fell to 3,797 on Wednesday, down almost 300 on the peak a week earlier, with the number requiring ventilation remaining constant at around 220.

The number of hospitalisations during the current wave in the capital is about half of that seen during the Delta wave a year ago, with far fewer requiring intensive care.

A Nightingale hospital was first established in London, at the ExCeL centre in Docklands, in April 2020, a month after the pandemic began. But it closed a month later after treating 57 patients.

The St George’s Nightingale was one of eight proposed by NHS England to cope with Omicron. Other locations included Lister hospital in Stevenage and William Harvey hospital in Ashford, Kent.

At the time, national health chiefs said they hoped never to have to use the surge hubs but needed to act in advance in case the high number of cases resulted in a wave of admissions.

Nightingales have frequently attracted controversy because of concerns about how they will be staffed.

Mr Machray revealed that the St George’s Nightingale would have been run by “stretching existing staff” and bringing in non-clinical staff working under supervision to look after the “least sickly” of Covid inpatients.

Mr Machray said: “The current wave of community infection is falling and so are our admissions now, thankfully, for Covid.

“So we have no expectation in this wave that that [Nightingale] would be needed to be staffed or used.

“But it was there in preparation for that worst-case scenario and it would have been staffed in a far less clinically rich staff mix than you would have on a normal ward. But that is not our plan at present.”

Asked whether the Nightingale would now be dismantled, he said: “Hopefully we will never need them again.

“We have grown our permanent ITU bed base in London over the last two years so we won’t need more ITU beds in subsequent waves.

“We need to get to a place where we have sufficient general beds but the last three waves have proved that London has got enough beds.”

A NHS London spokeswoman said the Nightingale would remain in place at St George’s in case of future need. It currently is an “empty shell” with no beds inside.

The capital’s public health chief, Professor Kevin Fenton, confirmed on Tuesday that Omicron had passed its peak in London.

He told the assembly committee on Thursday that community infection rates were “phenomenally high” and needed to continue to decline to ensure there was no resurgence of Omicron.

Professor Fenton said: “The peak itself is thought to have occurred just before the New Year. Since the New Year we have been seeing gradual declines in case rates, initially in all ages, and more recently we have begun to see a downturn in case rates in those aged over 60.

“Although there is a temptation to say that the worst is behind us, and that might be true in terms of the peak, however… our rates are still phenomenally high. They are in excess of 1,500 per 100,000 [people].

“That is more than four times higher than where we were before the wave started. We still see very high rates of infection across the city. People are still getting unwell. Sickness absence rates are still significant in both health and care sectors as well as the wider workforce.”

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