A number of new Nightingale “surge hubs” are to be set up around England as the NHS goes on a “war footing” in preparation for a wave of Omicron hospital admissions.
Eight locations with capacity for 100 patients will be set up, with work beginning this week, NHS England has said.
More sites have also been identified that could add another 4,000 “super surge” beds, which include premises such as gyms and education centres.
It comes as hospitals use hotels and care homes to safely discharge as many patients as possible in an effort to free up space for people with COVID.
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Given the high level of COVID-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing.
“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.
“We hoped never to have to use the original Nightingales and I hope we never to have to use these new hubs.”
The new hubs, named after Florence Nightingale, will be staffed by nurses and consultants, as well as clinical and non-clinical workers and look after those who are not well enough to go home but need minimal supervision during their COVID-19 recovery.
NHS England Nightingale hub locations
Royal Preston hospital
St James’ University Hospital in Leeds
Lister Hospital in Stevenage
St George’s Hospital in London
The William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent
North Bristol Hospital
University Hospitals Leicester
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “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.”
As part of a deal with Hospice UK, up to 4,800 people a day who may need monitoring but do not need to be in hospital, could be given support from a hospice bed or by home visitors.
The NHS is also making use of virtual wards, where patients get monitoring technology and regular check-ins with medical staff.
GPs also have access to nearly 250,000 devices that can read blood-oxygen levels by scanning finger tips, so that COVID patients can monitor their own levels at home rather than use up a hospital bed.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers – the membership organisation for NHS trusts in England, said: “Building on lessons learnt from earlier in the pandemic, trusts are identifying extra capacity on existing hospital sites that could be turned into super surge capacity should it be required.
“Trust leaders hope this back up insurance policy will never be needed, as with the original Nightingales. But it must be the right ‘no regrets later’ move to make these preparations now.
“Given the other pressures on the NHS and the current level of staff absences, staffing this capacity would be a major challenge. But co-location on existing hospital sites maximises the NHS’s ability to meet that challenge.
“We also need to recognise that this will add further stretch to an already hard pressed NHS.”