Britain’s health service on Thursday announced to set up a number of new so-called “surge hubs” named after English nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale around England as part of “war footing” plans to tackle a potential wave of Omicron variant related COVID-19 hospital admissions.
The National Health Service (NHS) said temporary structures capable of housing around 100 patients will be erected in the grounds of eight hospitals across the country, with work starting this week.
These Nightingale surge hubs are aimed at improving NHS resilience if the ongoing record number of COVID-19 infections coincides with a surge in hospital admissions. Hospitalisations have so far remained at relatively manageable levels even as daily COVID infections driven by the Omicron variant hit 183,037 on Wednesday as delayed figures from the holiday period were added on.
“Given the high level of COVID-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing,” said NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis.
“We do not yet know exactly how many of those who catch the virus will need hospital treatment, but given the number of infections we cannot wait to find out before we act and so work is beginning from today to ensure these facilities are in place,” he said, urging the public to play their part by getting their booster vaccine doses.
“The science is clear. Two doses of vaccine do not provide enough protection against Omicron so if you have not yet had a life-saving booster do not delay any longer,” he added.
NHS Trusts have also been asked to identify areas such as gyms and education centres that can be converted to accommodate patients and more Nightingale sites could be added to create up to 4,000 “super surge” beds across the country. The move comes as hospitals are using hotels, hospices and care homes to safely discharge as many people who are medically fit to leave as possible.
“We hope the Nightingale surge hubs at hospitals will not have to be used but it is absolutely right that we prepare for all scenarios and increase capacity,” said UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
The new Nightingale facilities would take patients who, although not fit for discharge, need minimal support and monitoring while they recover from illness, freeing up regular ward beds to provide care for those with more intensive needs. Patients may include those recovering from COVID-19 who are no longer infectious and do not need intensive oxygen therapy.
The units would be led by hospital consultants and nurses, but with other clinical and non-clinical staff brought in with rapid training to be able to perform routine checks and other tasks.
The hubs get underway as the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced that it will stop providing a break up of Omicron variant cases, now at an estimated 229,666, within its overall COVID-19 infections analysis from Friday.
“The last daily Omicron variant overview will be reported on Friday 31 December. As data has shown that Omicron cases now constitute more than 90 per cent of all community COVID-19 cases in England, our daily dashboard will provide the most updated info on COVID-19 case figures,” the UKHSA said.
Meanwhile, there continues to be concern over the shortage of lateral flow antigen test kits as well as PCR test kits in parts of the UK. These are made available to households free of charge to ensure testing and isolation works effectively. However, there are indications now that the supplies may need to be rationed and geared more towards frontline staff if the shortage continues.
“We are constantly reviewing system performance and ways to maximise its response to the demand for tests,” Sajid Javid told MPs in a letter.
“However, in light of the huge demand for LFDs (lateral flow devices) seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day. We will continue making tests available to everyone who needs them, particularly vulnerable groups such as care home residents and those who work in critical sectors such as the care workforce,” he said.
Experts have warned that problems getting hold of these rapid tests could lead to people mixing over the New Year without knowing if they are infectious.