Rows upon rows of cubicles hastily erected in London’s ExCel centre show the expected scale of the explosion in numbers of coronavirus patients.
Soldiers and trade contractors are converting the exhibition centre, which usually hosts spectacles and conferences, into the first of the NHS Nightingale hospitals.
The effort should see the temporary facility in the capital’s Docklands open its doors this week to its first patients, with capacity ultimately reaching 4,000 beds.
Initially 500 beds equipped with ventilators and oxygen will be used to treat the seriously ill, and their numbers are expected to swell in the capital ahead of the rest of the nation.
The NHS will build more temporary hospitals in Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Scotland.
The task of boosting critical care capacity has been under way since the health service declared an emergency at the end of January.
Before the scale of the crisis became clear, the UK was believed to have had one of the lowest proportions of intensive care units in Europe, but NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens says 33,000 beds are now available for Covid-19 patients.
Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, said at the Government’s daily press briefing that capacity had not yet been reached in regular hospitals.
“We are not at capacity as yet within London, but beds are being opened all the time to produce that extra surge capacity so in the first instance we are using theatres and recovery areas,” he said.
“Those are areas in hospitals where anaesthetic machines and ventilators are already used for surgery and can be readily adapted to take critically ill patients.”
He continued: “That is almost doubling the capacity that we have already, we are not using it at the moment but clearly the number of patients is increasing each day so we are expanding that capacity in advance.
“You will also have seen the plans at the NHS Nightingale, in east London, to initially bring on another 500 beds if they are needed. And we aim to get that up and ready for patients next week.
“At the moment I am confident that capacity is there. We have not reached capacity and also I am confident that capacity is expanding, especially in London,so that we keep ahead of increase in patient numbers.”
The National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham will add an initial 500 beds, with the potential to grow to 2,000 if necessary.
Manchester Central Convention Complex will add 500 more, with the capacity to expand to 1,000, and Cardiff’s Principality Stadium will provide up to 2,000 more.
Efforts are under way to source the doctors, nurses and non-clinical workers to staff the huge units.