London’s Nightingale Hospital is effectively being wound down after taking no new patients in the past week.
Staff were told today that a decision on its future would be made within days.
The field hospital, built in just 10 days at the start of April, had only 19 patients on Friday, down from a peak of around 35 earlier in the month.
London hospitals are increasingly choosing to keep patients in their own intensive care units.
One source said London’s Nightingale was in effect being “wound down”, with staff from the Royal London Hospital, who were due to be seconded to work there, told they were no longer needed on Friday due to the small numbers of patients.
The situation has been replicated across the country: none of the other Nightingale hospitals in Birmingham, Manchester or Harrogate have patients.
Approximately 200 staff were gathered in the boulevard area of the ExCel conference centre in east London on Friday afternoon, where chief operating officer Natalie Forrest explained the challenges facing the hospital. She told staff discussions had started on the future of the hospital and that a final decision would come “sooner rather than later” within the next week.
Questions are being asked about whether it is sustainable to keep open the Nightingale hospital, which was originally designed to look after 500 patients. Many other hospitals in the capital have space as part of the emergency capacity created to cope with a Covid-19 surge that never fully materialised.
While that has been praised by most NHS leaders, many are now asking why the Nightingale has not been closed and staff recycled back into hospitals that are still working at emergency levels.
It is thought the field hospital may be either repurposed for use as a step-down facility for recovering patients or mothballed but retained for any potential second waves of infection after the UK’s lockdown is lifted.
At the Downing Street press conference today, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the Nightingale hospitals were specifically designed for ventilated patients. NHS England medical director Steve Powis suggested the hospital would not be suitable for other uses.
He added: “We need to keep them as an insurance policy for the next month or so.”
One source close to the operation of the Nightingale hospital told The Independent: “As an initial idea, the Nightingale made a great deal of sense. The rationale for that is receding quite rapidly. We are having to think about what to do next.
“There are still patients and staff are still caring for patients but there have been no admissions in the past week. The numbers are going down.”
They added that while the hospital was “technically open to admissions”, many London hospitals were judging that their patients were better staying locally in hospitals where there were other services that the Nightingale could not offer, such as surgery and specialist treatments.
The source explained that the hospital’s future was tricky to decide, saying: “We are still well above intensive care capacity in London overall. We don’t have a fully functioning NHS in London that is coping with strokes, cancer, heart disease and coronavirus. If we mothball the Nightingale and need it again, standing it back up becomes that bit harder.”
They added the initial reason for creating the Nightingale was correct given the scale of predicted demand, saying it was a “tremendous sense of relief” that its total of 4,000 beds were never needed.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “NHS Nightingale London will remain available to treat Covid-19 patients for as long as it is needed. It is thanks to the sacrifice of Londoners who stayed at home and followed social distancing rules that we haven’t needed to expand our capacity.”
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