NHS England, with the help of UK Armed Forces, will open a new temporary hospital for treating several thousand more patients with coronavirus.
The Nightingale Hospital (named after Florence Nightingale), which will be run by NHS England and based at East London's Excel Conference centre in London, is expected to admit its first patients early next week. The hospital will comprise two wards able to accommodate 4,000 people in total. Initially, the hospital will provide up to 500 beds equipped with ventilators and oxygen.
Earlier media reports stated the new hospital will be staffed by medics from the Army, Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. However, the MoD stated that the Nightingale is not a military run field hospital, but an "NHS facility with the military providing support." It is believed the military will provide mostly logistics and infrastructure support to help transform the Excel centre into a temporary hospital. It is unclear whether military medics will actually work alongside NHS staff in the new hospital.
“Our military planners and engineers are working hand-in-hand with the NHS to support their development of the Nightingale Hospital,” said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. “The Armed Forces have already been distributing personal protective equipment to meet the increased demand and we stand ready to assist further in any capacity needed.”
Royal Navy surgeons, GPs, nurses and medical specialists are already working alongside their NHS colleagues in hospitals across the country, particularly Derriford in Plymouth and Queen Alexandra in Portsmouth – to treat and look after those affected by the virus.
There were calls by naval charities for RFA Argus, a casualty receiving ship which contains 100 hospital beds, to be relocated from Plymouth to London to help alleviate pressure on the NHS. But unlike USNS Comfort and Mercy, two US naval hospital ships which have been deployed to New York and LA to help alleviate pressure on medical resources in both cities, the Argus, which is operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, is not designated a hospital ship under the Geneva Convention and therefore does not contain the typical markings ( a red cross). Most of the hospital beds on board the Argus are low dependency, with a small number of high dependency beds.
What the UK military lacks in terms of hospital ships, it more than makes up for in terms of providing the highest levels of combat care and combating infectious diseases. In Afghanistan, the British Army's 22 Field Hospital, based in Aldershot,created a world-class trauma hospital. In 2014, more than 100 members of the field hospital were deployed to Sierra Leone to work in a treatment facility for local and international healthcare workers that may have contracted the Ebola virus. Their work in Sierra Leone gave NGOs the confidence and quality of care they needed to remain on the frontline and to successfully defeat the outbreak in West Africa, which was one of the largest outbreaks of Ebola in recent years.
In addition to the new Nightingale hospital, on 18 March, the Defence Secretary announced a COVID Support Force to assist public services with their response to the coronavirus outbreak. As of 23 March, 250 military personnel were deployed to assist civil authorities, and 20,000 armed forces personnel remain on standby to assist.
UK Armed Forces are assisting the government in a multitude of ways. Around 150 personnel from all three services will be trained to drive supplies of oxygen to NHS facilities if required.
The military is also assisting with the distribution and delivery of Personal Protective Equipment to NHS staff. Military aircraft are being used to distribute aid to UK territories and to transfer critically ill COVID-19 patients to hospitals where they can receive better treatment. Joint Helicopter Command is on standby to provide aviation capabilities to access isolated communities that may not have access to urgent medical care during the coronavirus crisis.
“You can expect to see your military across the United Kingdom assisting further over the coming weeks and months,” said Lt. Gen. Tyrone Urch, Commander Standing Joint Command.
The head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin, said: “In times of crisis, we are ready to support and assist the government wherever needed. But our duties remain unchanged, and we continue to deliver on operations around the world.”
Despite the global coronavirus threat, Royal Navy operations in the Middle East are continuing as normal with the frigate HMS Argyll traversing the Mediterranean to take over from destroyer HMS Defender patrolling the Gulf and Indian Ocean. The Argyll is due to remain in the Gulf for the next seven months alongside Royal Navy warships – frigate HMS Montrose and minehunters Ledbury, Blyth, Shoreham and Brocklesby.
This story is adpated from announcements made by the UK Ministry of Defence.