The massive National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham could be taken over by NHS bosses temporarily and turned into an emergency “makeshift field hospital” to help to deal with the huge numbers of patients requiring specialist care as a result of COVID-19.
A spokesman for the events and conference centre – which has capacity for more than 15,000 even-goers in one of its venues and has 18 halls, 32 conference suites and 182,000sqm of covered space – confirmed today that the venue’s bosses have been in discussions with local health chiefs and it “stands ready” and is “well equipped”, should it be needed to deal with the expected continued surge in patients requiring care.
Nationally, NHS bosses have been scrambling to ramp up ICU capacity as hospitals across the country reach breaking point because of the sheer number of COVID-19 patients requiring critical care, on top of the normal caseload they deal with year-in-year-out.
In addition to a landmark deal agreed with the NHS, Britain’s independent sector hospital providers have already said they will turn almost of their capacity – at cost – to the health service to deal with COVID-19.
And in London – which has felt the brunt of the spread of COVID-19 and where hospitals have come under most pressure – plans are well underway to turn the ExCel conference and events venue in the East of the city into a temporary hospital to deal with the overflow of patients needing ICU care.
The military has been drafted in to help to repurpose the facility in the capital as quickly as possible, and it is thought that the first patients will arrive there in the next few days.
The ExCel centre will be known, temporarily, as the NHS Nightingale Hospital and will have, in the first instance, 500 ICU beds, although it is expected that it will soon become home to two wards with a total of 4,000 beds on site.
As it stands, the hospital will be run by the NHS, not the military, which at present is being utilised at a logistical level to get the facility up and running.
Major General Timothy Cross, who ran Nato’s emergency relief operation in Kosovo and Macedonia in the 1990s, said today that it was a “big process” to create a field hospital.
He told the BBC’s Today programme: “What you’ve got in the ExCeL centre is a large, open space with power, lighting, water, sanitation, good accessibility but also obviously the ability to isolate.
“That’s the sort of thing one’s looking for deploying on operations in various places around the world.
“It’s a big process, but there’s a process for setting it all up.”
Other venues – including the O2 and Wembley Arena – in London are also potential locations for additional capacity if required, while smaller facilities, including ice rinks, have also been earmarked for deployment. Preparations are also being made to deal with the grim prospect of dealing with an huge and unusual spike in the number of deaths – or corpses – left in the wake of the virus.
And as pressure mounts on local hospital ICU capacity outside the capital, health bosses across the country are looking at a range of other venues that could be repurposed in a similar way.
In Birmingham, the NEC spokesman said members of senior management there have been in “constant communication” with the local NHS trust, police and fire services, and they are “fully aware” of the capabilities of the venue.
The spokesman said: “We stand ready and willing to help our emergency services – especially at a time like this.
“The NEC is well equipped to be used as a support base if such need arises so please be assured, that if we are requested to do so, we can action this with immediate effect.”
The spokesman added: “We will do our utmost to support the effort in combating the virus.”
Public Health England has confirmed that there have now been a total 1,074 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Midlands as a whole, while in Birmingham the number of cases has more than doubled from 91 to 187 in just two days.
SENIOR GOVERNMENT ADVISER ‘REASONABLY CONFIDENT’ UK HEALTHCARE SYSTEM CAN WITHSTAND POTENTIAL INTENSIVE CARE CATACLYSM
* Emergency measures should now mean country is able to cope with spread of virus
* COVID-19 deaths ‘unlikely’ to exceed 20,000 as a result of steps being taken
A senior health professional who is advising the government on how the UK should cope with COVID-19 said today that he is “reasonably confident” the country will be able to cope with the spread of the virus.
Giving evidence to the UK’s parliamentary select committee on science and technology, Professor Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London said he believed that anticipated increases in NHS capacity, in addition to the “stay at home” rules and restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Monday, should mean that the health service will be able to cope when the predicted peak of the epidemic arrives in two or three weeks.
Deaths in the UK from the disease are now unlikely to exceed 20,000, hesaid, and could be much lower. Estimates from just a few days ago, before the Prime Minister’s intervention and the additional measures being taken, had suggested that as many as 290,000 deaths could be on the cards. Just a few weeks before that, government officials were working on ‘”worst case” disaster scenario planning of additional deaths as a result of COVID-19 of as many as 800,000.
Ferguson said that although the need for intensive care beds will get very close to capacity in some areas, capacity at a national level will not, on current projections, be breached. The projections are based on computer simulations of the virus spreading, which take into account the properties of the virus, the reduced transmission between people asked to stay at home and the capacity of hospitals, particularly intensive care units.
The senior epidemiologist’s comments today follow a massive national effort from across different disciplines and sectors, including the provision of almost all of the country’s private sector hospital capacity at cost, as well as the introduction of emergency measures, including the setting up of a makeshift ‘field’ hospital in London’s Docklands, capable of providing intensive care to as many as 4,000 patients.
Predictions made by a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge – published this week – warned that without the radical measures being introduced to boost capacity, five out of seven commissioning regions in England could run out of intensive care beds within a fortnight.