In recent months, the Government has been forced to defend itself over the Nightingale hospitals, the medical sites it set up in the spring to support the NHS through the Coronavirus crisis, which have been noticeably empty, and sometimes deactivated, across the pandemic.
While their emptiness should be a good thing, many have wondered – more so now that the NHS is under huge strain and with the emergence of the new Coronavirus variant – why this extra support has not been used much, if at all.
It is estimated that the Government spent £200 million in total on seven sites in England, but the most publicised Nightingale hospital (in London’s ExCel) closed a month after treating 57 patients. Inevitably there were questions about whether this was a good use of resources.
When Matt Hancock was grilled on this matter in December last year he said that these hospitals were never intended as the first port of call, and were in fact “there in case they’re needed.” Stephen Powis, NHS England Medical Director, has echoed this sentiment, calling them “our insurance policy, there as our last resort.”
So it is troubling that today the London Nightingale field hospital has been opened up again, albeit as a “rehab unit” to treat those recovering from Covid and other conditions.
The Nightingale in Exeter has been off “standby” mode since November, when it started taking patients from the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust.
Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Bristol and Harrogate have also been used for non-Covid patients.
And Northern Ireland is seeing a similar rise in demand, where the Nightingale Hospital in Belfast is being prepared for use as intensive care patients increase.
That being said, across all Nightingale hospitals there is no consistent snapshot of how they’ve been used, as so much is determined by the nature of the virus and how it spreads across the country.
At the other end of the spectrum is Sunderland’s Nightingale Hospital, a 460-bed facility, which has not treated a single patient and does not expect to as of yet.
It’s a similar story in Wales, where the health authorities decided to dismantle its 2,000-bed field hospital which was created at the beginning of the pandemic, instead moving to smaller sites, which are designed to support existing hospitals.
In England, however, the signs are there that this infrastructure will be more relied upon, particularly given the dire warnings from Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, about the challenges over the coming weeks as the NHS battles a much more transmittable version of the virus.
One of the biggest challenges ahead will be whether the Nightingales have enough staff to support the upscaled infrastructure. NHS professionals have complained that there simply aren’t enough nurses and doctors for them. Hancock has previously said the Government “built more capacity within the NHS” to cope with growing cases, but how this translates to reliance on the Nightingale hospitals remains to be seen. Tragically, the next few weeks are likely to be their crucial test.