Coronavirus: Army prepares for battle against ‘invisible enemy’ as new Nightingale Hospital set to open

‘My 27 years in the military were a journey to this moment,’ says Army Colonel Ashleigh Boreham leading army’s response at UK’s largest medical facility

Kim Sengupta
Defence Editor
Wednesday 01 April 2020 14:46 BST
Staff prepare for first Covid-19 patients in London's Nightingale Hospital

In his 27 years in the army Colonel Ashleigh Boreham served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. But there is no doubt in his mind that the job he is doing currently is the most important and worthwhile of his life.

Col. Boreham has been a commander of medical units in three different conflicts, including Afghanistan. Now he is in charge of the military unit at the emergency hospital of 4,000 beds – the largest medical facility in the UK – which has been built for coronavirus patients at the ExCel Centre in London’s Docklands.

“This is the biggest job I have ever known. I’ve spent 27 years on a journey to this moment,” he said. “We are building a hospital for people of our nation. These are our comrades. it really does not matter whether they are civilian or military, there is no difference. I am from London, most of the people here are from London, we are doing this to save the lives of Londoners.

“It feels personal for everybody involved, it cannot be anything else. Many of the people working here, many of the soldiers working here, are from London. It focuses the mind, and that is why you have everyone pulling together. We have one common aim and that is to save lives. This is the common purpose between the military and the NHS.”

NHS Nightingale is one of around four hospitals being built around the UK to help the NHS deal with the onslaught of the pandemic. There have been people from other fields volunteering to work there, including more than a hundred cabin crew from Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet who are trained in first aid, as well as around 750 from St John’s Ambulance.

Col. Boreham, of the 256 City of London Field Hospital, wanted to stress that the role of volunteers is of huge importance in supporting the “absolutely fantastic NHS” and those who are in need. His 88-year-old mother is in lockdown; a university student daughter is delivering food and care parcels; his wife is a nurse.

The ExCel Centre facility, expected to open this week, was set up by the military’s Covid Support Force in less than a week. It’ll be staffed by the NHS with the military providing support.

The size of the project can be gauged by the fact that the largest hospital in the country until now, St George’s in Tooting, in southwest London, has around 1,300 beds. Two of the other emergency hospitals being considered are at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, which will have 500 beds, with the capacity to go up to 2,000 if necessary, and the Manchester Central Convention Complex, also with 500 beds, with the capacity to expand to 1,000.

Col Boreham, aged 54, was in the last months of his active service before leaving the army to join the NHS, when he heard that he would be working on this project. “It is my last job in the army. Two weeks ago I had no idea. We literally got a phone call, I said goodbye to my wife, who is also on the frontline, packed my bergen (rucksack), arrived here, met up with the NHS about nine days ago, sat around a table and basically did what you always do. We drew a plan up, over a brew, and then from that we started to build up a plan and create the product. It’s the scale,” he said.

Contractors and military work together as they help set up NHS Nightingale.

“Myself and my team, and all the other parts of the army, the NHS, everybody here has got the skillset and ability to do it. I can’t emphasise enough the leadership skills of some of the NHS people here. I’ve got the experience: I’m the right person at the right time, maybe, for this particular project.”

The initial reconnaissance team at the ExCel Centre was of eight, and that went up to 200, with around 65 deployed every day. The NHS, he pointed out, was in charge. The task of the military unit, a mixture of regulars and reserves, ranged from laying down floor, building beds, engineering and electrical projects, and the delivery of essential supplies, to medical planning, setting up patient data bases and management systems.

Col. Boreham pointed to the British military’s experience in dealing with epidemics: “The parallels are the experience we had from working with partners in west Africa during the Ebola crisis”. Comparing it to combat operations, he added “the challenges are the same, the threats are in a different way. It is more the threat one can’t see.”

Lieutenant Michael Andrews, 24, of A Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, was in Sierra Leone on a military training mission when he and his colleagues were recalled. “We were brought back about two weeks early. Initially we were told we were coming back because they didn’t want us to be stuck in Sierra Leone, obviously with the flights all being cancelled, they didn’t want us to be stranded.

“When I arrived back we were put on readiness to assist when required. We were warned we might be assisting as of Monday last week and I arrived on site on Thursday. It is hard to not make it personal ... It is personal because you are very aware that your friends and family could end up at NHS Nightingale. It’s personal because you are helping to lay the foundations for what is such a momentous and incredible achievement.”

Sergeant Mark Anderson, 32, also of A Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, has also served in Iraq, Afghanistan and with the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. It was the sheer magnitude of what was being undertaken at the ExCel Centre and other facilities which makes this mission logistically so different, he said.

“I have been in the Army 15 years. I don’t think what is happening here compares with Afghanistan and Iraq. The task here is of a massive scale and I don’t think anyone has seen something of this scale done before.

“The enemy now is an invisible enemy and we all need to work together to combat the outbreak. I am from Essex, currently living in London, and being here does hit home the reality of the scale of the outbreak.

“I didn’t join the army expecting something like to happen. [But] we have a very flexible capability and the training we deliver to our soldiers is of the highest level to make sure we are ready for any situation or national emergency thrown our way.

“We are working with the NHS and other public services on such a large scale, everyone contributes to the main goal, everyone has been working flat out to the best of their ability to get this place up and running in the quickest possible time.”

The team said Col. Boreham was driven by a sense of duty to the past, as well as the present and the future: “I have come from a family that has served. My grandfather was at the Somme, this is no different, I am just in a different battle.”

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