London Latest Capital to Turn Convention Centre Over to COVID-19

Liam Davenport

March 25, 2020

A new, temporary, hospital in London’s ExCeL exhibition and conference centre will open next week to offer care to hundreds of patients infected with COVID-19, rising to several thousand over the coming weeks, it was announced yesterday.

The capital joins Madrid and Vienna in turning over its largest venue to tackling the coronavirus epidemic. When the NHS Nightingale Hospital is complete, it will have 4000 critical care beds, making it the largest such facility anywhere in the UK.

The move was announced by Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, on 24th March during a press conference.

"We will, next week, open a new hospital – a temporary hospital – the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel centre in London," he said, adding that it will consist of two wards for up to  2000 patients each.

He added in a news release: "In the face of this unprecedented global emergency, we are taking exceptional steps to increase NHS capacity so we can treat more patients, fight the virus and save lives."

Military Support

Military personnel have been working with NHS clinicians to plan the hospital, and will continue to provide infrastructure and logistics as the capacity is scaled up from an initial 500 beds equipped with ventilators and oxygen.

Matt Hancock said: "I applaud the NHS, engineers, and the military for their continued work on setting up the new NHS Nightingale Hospital so it is ready to open its doors next week – a remarkable feat in these challenging circumstances."

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, added: "This will be a model of care never needed or seen before in this country, but our specialist doctors are in touch with their counterparts internationally who are also opening facilities like this, in response to the shared global pandemic."

Public Health England figures show that, as of 24th March, there were 8077 cases of coronavirus infection in the UK, a 1427 increase over the previous day, with a total of 422 deaths.

However, the capital is the hardest hit area in the country, with a total 2872 cases.

"Despite these amazing measures, the fact is no health service in the world will cope if coronavirus lets rip," Sir Simon said, "which is why NHS staff are pleading with the public to follow medical advice – stay at home, stop the virus spreading, and save lives."

Ruth May, chief nursing officer for England, agreed, and praised the work of nurses, midwives, and care staff across the NHS in their role to "ramp up the number of beds, services, and facilities to help people to manage over the coming weeks and months".

Will the NHS Nightingale Hospital Be Enough?

A recent analysis of Italian data showed that the number of people in intensive care in regions heavily affected by coronavirus approximately doubles every 2 to 4 days for up to 4 weeks, with each patient spending an average of 15 days on the intensive care unit.

"Because it’s doubling everywhere every few days, and because London is 2 weeks ahead of the rest of the country in the severity of the impact of the disease, the ExCeL is part of the plan because that doubling means we aren’t going to have the beds," an NHS official was quoted by The Guardian as saying.

However, one issue could be sourcing enough trained critical care staff and ventilators. "That would be the biggest ICU on the planet," a clinician said in the same article. "I’m not sure how feasible this is, given how much equipment, power and facilities are required."

The ExCeL centre, which opened in 2000, has 87,000 m2 of space in the Docklands area of east London, and hosts conferences, trade fairs, and sporting events, as well as hosting several events during the 2012 Olympics.

There is also speculation, The Guardian notes, that, once the coronavirus epidemic reaches its peak, the NHS could be forced to use the O2 concert arena, which lies across the Thames from the ExCeL centre.

IFEMA Joins the Fight Against COVID-19

London is not the only capital in Europe seeking to exploit the capacity of its largest conference centre to help tackle the coronavirus epidemic.

In Madrid, the Institución Ferial de Madrid (IFEMA) has made available two of its pavilions to initially receive 1300 patients infected with COVID-19, rising to potentially 5500 combined intensive care and conventional beds.

Spain has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus epidemic. Despite having been in lockdown for more than a week, there are a reported 42,058 confirmed cases, with 2991 deaths so far.

The IFEMA field hospital was announced on 20th March and just 18 hours later, with the help of the Ministry of Defence, it was ready to receive its first patients.

Dr Antonio Zapatero, normally head of internal medicine at Fuenlabrada University Hospital, near Madrid, Spain, is in charge of managing the installation of the oxygen lines, as well as the human resources, pharmacy, and electronic medical records.

"We have to organize it as safely as possible, understanding that it is a field hospital," he told the Comunidad de Madrid website.

Currently, the facility will accept only uncomplicated cases of COVID-19 infection as it waits for ventilators to be delivered.

"We have a laboratory and we have the Hospital of La Paz available to carry out more complex tests and we are going to have radiology devices, mainly portable" to carry out examinations, Dr Zapatero added.

Self-isolation at Messe Wien Exhibition Centre

Over in Austria, a coronavirus centre has been set up in the Messe Wien, in Vienna, designed not to take intensive care patients but rather people with mild to moderate disease who are unable to self-isolate for various reasons.

During a visit to the facility, Michael Ludwig, mayor and governor of Vienna, told Vienna Online that there are 880 additional beds, although he added: "I hope we will not need them for as long as possible."

The beds are located in a 15,000 m2 hall, and are equipped with a lamp, lockable box and plug sockets for patients to be able to, for example, charge their phones.

Working with a host of international agencies, the Vienna rescue service, fire brigade, and hygiene department set up the facility in a few days. It has up to 1000 doctors, nurses, and paramedics working at any one time.

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