NHS England has confirmed the ExCel conference centre, in London’s docklands, is being readied to take patients from hospitals across the city as they risk running out of beds for the sickest.
Now emails seen by The Independent reveal the military is preparing to call up dozens of army reservists to help run the hospital alongside NHS staff.
NHS England is in talks with the military to redeploy army reserve nurses and other clinicians working at NHS hospitals in the north of England to help bolster staffing levels at the London centre.
Lack of staff, particularly nurses, was one of the reasons why the Nightingale was poorly used during the first wave of the virus – treating only 54 patients in total.
It is also a reason why London’s hospitals have struggled to open up enough so-called surge capacity. Staffing ratios have already been stretched and NHS England has urged staff to work extra shifts over the next three weeks.
This time round the Nightingale hospital will open as a step-down facility for around 60 patients. These will be those who are not seriously ill and don’t require a ventilator. They will need some levels of physical therapy and assessments before being ready for discharge.
Once open, the Nightingale will be run by North East London Foundation Trust with staff from across the capital.
Army nurses working in the north of England have been warned to be ready to be redeployed with just 48 hours notice.
In an email to reservists, staff were told up to 32 nurses and other clinical staff could be needed as early as this weekend.
The message said the “manning of the Nightingales” would require at least 23 nurses who would be “placed on 48 hours notice as of 30 December”.
It added: “My feeling is that unlike last time, they will go.”
The message said efforts had been made to “limit the effect” on hospitals losing staff to London with a special emphasis on supporting critical care and emergency departments.
In total there were seven Nightingale hospitals opened in England at a cost of more than £220m. They were designed to take thousands of seriously ill and dying Covid patients but when the peak of the virus was much lower than feared, few hospitals could spare the staff and considered them more of a risk than keeping patients in their own wards.
London’s Nightingale Hospital: What you need to know
A spokesperson for NHS England said: “In anticipation of pressures rising from the spread of the new variant infection, the NHS London region were asked to ensure the Nightingale was reactivated and ready to admit patients should it be needed, and that process is underway.
“In the first instance the hospital will operate similarly to the NHS Nightingale Manchester. It will be run by North East London NHS Foundation Trust with staff drawn from across the health service in London and, if necessary, additional support from the military and partners in the voluntary sector if required.”
The Ministry of Defence added: “The MoD works hard to identify where it can most effectively assist other government departments and civil authorities.
“The Covid Support Force has personnel, including specialist planners, medics and logisticians, ready to support responses to the outbreak wherever required.”
The military is also supporting the nationwide vaccination effort with “a small reserve force of medically qualified military personnel” available to the NHS if needed.
There are teams of medically qualified military staff in reserve for all seven NHS England regions.