THE NHS been told to make sure London's Nightingale hospital is "reactived and ready to admit patients" as Covid cases surge.
Other Nightingales across England are also being "readied" for use if needed – after pictures showed the facilities lying empty and stripped bare.
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The Army is also on standby to staff the facilities if the NHS exceeds its capacity of critical care beds, the Government today said.
It comes as Covid hospital admissions soared beyond the peak of the first wave in April and the highest ever daily increase in cases was recorded.
Hospitals in the capital are buckling under the pressure as medics warn there's not enough staff to cope with the number of patients.
A spokesman for the NHS said: "Hospitals in London are coming under significant pressure from high Covid-19 infection rates and while staff are going the extra mile and the NHS in London is opening more beds in NHS hospitals across the capital to care for the most unwell patients, it is crucial that people do everything they can to reduce transmission of the virus.
"In anticipation of pressures rising from the spread of the new variant infection, NHS London were asked to ensure the London Nightingale was reactivated and ready to admit patients as needed, and that process is under way."
The Exeter site received its first Covid patients in November when it began accepting those transferred from the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, which was described as "very busy".
The Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Bristol and Harrogate are in use currently for non-Covid patients, the spokesman said.
He added: "Covid inpatient numbers are rising sharply so the remaining Nightingales are being readied to admit patients once again should they be needed, in line with best clinical practice developed over the first and second waves of coronavirus."
NHS England medical director Stephen Powis has described the Nightingale hospitals as "our insurance policy, there as our last resort".
He told the Downing Street press conference last night: "We asked all the Nightingale hospitals a few weeks ago to be ready to take patients if that was required.
"Indeed, some of them are already doing that, in Manchester taking step-down patients, in Exeter managing Covid patients, and in other places managing diagnostics, for instance.
"Our first steps though, in managing the extra demands on the NHS, are to expand capacity within existing hospitals – that's the best way to use our staff."
Concerns have been raised around the already-stretched health service's ability to staff Nightingale facilities.
Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: "It is not 'just the case' of using the Nightingale hospital as there are simply no staff for them to run as they were originally intended (mini intensive care units)."
Earlier this week, pictures emerged showing the Nightingale facilities lying bare – despite the soaring number of Covid cases.
London's Nightingale at the ExCel centre was shut and placed on standby soon after it was built.
The facilities – built at a cost of £220million – have been left mostly empty as medics warn there is not enough staff to run them, the Telegraph reported.
In England, there are currently 23,771 patients being treated for Covid in hospital compared to 18,974 on April 12.
The latest figures from NHS England, published on Wednesday, show hospitals in London currently have the highest number of Covid patients.
There are currently 5,371 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the capital, according to data published on Tuesday, with that figure only expected to rise.
ARMY AT READY
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the military is standing by to staff Nightingale hospitals if the NHS exceeds its capacity of critical care beds.
Speaking to Times Radio, Mr Wallace said: "Of course we stand ready to help with Nightingales if the critical pressures go beyond the capacity of the existing NHS.
"We are on, I think, 17,000 ventilator beds currently being used, of a capacity of 21,000.
"If it starts to tip over there, then of course you'll see those Nightingales being more active and, yes, we have a number of medical staff."
He said the Army currently has 5,000 personnel deployed in the Covid-19 response.
It was disclosed on Wednesday that Buckinghamshire had followed Essex by declaring a major incident amid fears that rising numbers of Covid-19 patients could overwhelm health services.
Health chiefs said non-urgent surgery and outpatient appointments are being delayed, but serious operations, including for cancer, will go ahead.
The news about Buckinghamshire came after local authorities in Essex asked for help to increase hospital capacity, over fears about critical care and bed capacity, staff sickness and the ability to discharge patients quickly into safe environments.
Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin requested armed forces assistance for Essex in the Commons on Wednesday, including for vaccine deployment and testing in schools, although the Ministry of Defence said on Thursday it had not yet received an official request for support.
A day after the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was announced, in what was hailed as a "game changer" moment, Mr Wallace said up to 250 teams of combat medics could be made available to help deliver the rollout across the country.
He told Times Radio: " We've already put 133 (Army medics) into the overall vaccine taskforce but I've also got plans for up to 250 teams of mobile, medically-trained personnel who could go out and administer the vaccine around the country.
"That would be over 100,000 a day they could potentially deliver if that is requested by the NHS – and we are planning to grow that if possible."
Another 981 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, the highest daily figure reported since April 24, though there is likely to be a lag in reporting deaths over the Christmas period.
And a further 50,023 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK were recorded as of 9am on Wednesday.
We are in for a very difficult new year
According to the Department of Health, between December 18 and 24 the weekly Covid-19 case rate in England rose to 402.6 per 100,000, a 32% increase on the previous week.
Some 14,915 patients have been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in the past week, an 18 per cent increase on the week before.
With 22,713 Covid-19 patients in hospitals in England as of 8am on Wednesday – higher than the first-wave peak – NHS Providers said pressure on hospitals is "intensifying".
Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said: "We know Covid-19 cases are rising sharply, with the new variant making a big impact, so more demand for treatment is 'baked in'.
"We are in for a very difficult new year."
The British Medical Association (BMA) has warned that the NHS will "struggle to get patients in urgent need of care, the care they need" if the trajectory of rising infections continues.
An intensive care doctor said the situation in intensive care units in England is currently "pretty dire".
The Intensive Care Society's Dr Zudin Puthucheary, who also works at the Royal London Hospital, said a "huge number of patients" are "coming in rapidly" and numbers are rising in "every hospital" and that staff are "running ragged because they've been doing this all along, they've been doing this since March".
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