A vast new temporary field hospital at Birmingham’s NEC was today undergoing active trials before it takes its first patients this weekend.
It will serve the entire Midlands, from the urban heart of the Black Country to rural Shropshire and Staffordshire and eastwards across to Derby.
The Birmingham Nightingale Hospital on the outskirts of the city will be fully operational in just two days, project leaders said. It sits within the National Exhibition Centre complex, which earlier this year hosted Crufts and should at this time be getting ready for events like the Commercial Vehicle Show and BBC Gardeners’ World Live.
It comes as regional health chiefs moved to “reassure” the public there was still plenty of ventilator and critical care bed capacity in the Midlands, amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
The facility is one of a network of NHS Nightingale Hospitals being built up and down the country, the first of which has already opened at London’s ExCel centre.
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It will initially have 496 beds divided into four wards – with potential to be immediately increased to 800 if needed.
The hospital can also be massively scaled up in phases if infection rates worsen across the region, with a second phase of up to 2,000 beds and a worst-case third phase, up to 4,000 beds.
The Birmingham site will be taking patients who have Covid-19 and are recovering, those for whom it is “not appropriate” to ventilate because of age or illness, and palliative patients “who it is clear cannot get through this illness”, its chief executive said.
Staff will be drawn from Midlands hospitals, including from those who have returned to work after recently retiring.
It will take mainly adult patients from 14 trusts across the Midlands, including the Black Country, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Birmingham, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, as well as Derby and Burton-upon-Trent.
Dr David Rosser is chief executive of Birmingham’s biggest hospital trust, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust (UHB), and the new NEC-based Nightingale.
He said: “The Nightingale Hospital is going to take patients who don’t need really complex care; ventilation, dialysis, that sort of thing, out of the main hospitals.”
Dr Rosser said the facility was different to the one in London because it would not be taking critically ill Covid-19 patients, who instead will be treated in established Midlands hospitals.
That is because the region’s hospitals network could “turn on” enough capacity to ventilate “over 1,000 patients”.
“Fortunately it’s not looking as if we’re going to need to do that.”
He added: “That’s important because on one hand I can reassure the public that we’ve got plenty of capacity that we can turn on – and we’re nowhere near running out.”
Dr Rosser said that building the Nightingale meant “everybody who needs a bed during this extraordinary period will get one”, and that it would mean no repeat in the UK of “the scenes we saw in Italy and Spain”.
Lisa Stalley-Green, executive chief nurse of UHB and the new hospital, said the focus was on “individual, effective and compassionate care” for patients.
Mrs Stalley-Green also drew attention to the key role female NHS staff are playing across the country in the battle against the unseen enemy.
“More than 75 per cent of NHS staff are women,” she said.
“This is a very different battle – and it is women that are on the front line.”
Morag Gates, project director of the Birmingham Nightingale, came out of retirement to run the build.
Mrs Gates, who previously oversaw delivering the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, called the NEC facility “phenomenal”.
She added that the physical build would only have taken eight days by the time doors open to patients.
By comparison, getting the business case signed off for Birmingham’s QE had taken “eight years”.
“We’ve managed to plan and fit out a hospital in less than two weeks, which is phenomenal,” she added.
“It is the best example of teamwork I’ve ever known and I’ve worked in the health service since 1979.”
The Army has been instrumental in making the project a reality, working with NHS staff and commercial logistic companies to get the hospital ready.
Major Angela Laycock, of the Royal Engineers, who has led on the ground for the military, said: “I did some engineering maths, working out how many beds we could fit in a given space, and we came up with a concept for 125-bed bays.
“My draughtsman stood in here on Sunday and said, ‘I cannot believe this was just on my laptop a week ago’.”
As well as brains, the Army has also provided brawn, including about 80 loaders, tradespeople, telecommunications experts and engineers.
They have been working around the clock alongside about 400 private contractors, employed through Interserve, from more than 60 separate firms. Clinicians will also be able to video-call staff between the hospital and other medical sites after BT installed the necessary technology.
Many NHS staff are being redirected from hospitals in the region to help run the hospital.
There is also a major recruitment drive ongoing for doctors and nurses but also administrative staff.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Huge credit should go to all those involved in getting the hospital set up so quickly.” He added that the third Nightingale Hospital in Manchester was expected to open in “the next week or so”.