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Revealed: How London’s giant coronavirus hospital was built in a fortnight

From the outside there is not much to suggest that this east London riverside landmark is now the world's largest critical care facility. The new NHS logo on the outside only hints at what is inside.

Two weeks ago the first plans were drawn up to re-purpose this giant conference centre into a specialist COVID-19 field hospital called the NHS Nightingale.

The result is simply staggering.

Image: More than 16,000 members of staff could be needed to run NHS Nightingale. Pic: MoD

As you make your way past the shuttered fast food stands, you notice the lines of masking tape on the floor, marking out designated areas. The Costa Coffee stand will be a pharmacy next week.

There is a real buzz inside. Hundreds of people busy making the final preparations as the NHS Nightingale gets ready to take on its first patient.

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There are soldiers in full uniform, carpet teams measuring and marking, stewards in fluorescent bibs marshalling volunteers through the crowded corridors.

Trucks unload ventilators and other life-saving medical machinery. They will soon be plumbed into a four-mile long oxygen supply network.

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The Nighingale is split into more than 80 wards containing 42 beds each
Image: The Nighingale is split into more than 80 wards containing 42 beds each

Porters hurriedly wheel new beds towards the waiting wards.

Only very sick COVID-19 patients will be brought here for treatment. But they will be patients who are transferred from other hospitals in London and the south.

Emergency cases will still be taken to local hospitals in the first instance.

The movement of patients, staff and resources will be coordinated by response managers in a central command unit in the capital.

Dr Alan McGlennan, medical director for Nightingale Hospital, explained how it would work.

The new 4,000-bed temporary facility at the ExCel convention centre in east London. Pic: MoD
Image: The new 4,000-bed temporary facility at the ExCel convention centre in east London. Pic: MoD

"We're an NHS facility within London so we take our resources from London," he said.

"We want to re-coordinate from the centre so they know the best place to deploy staff and resources.

"We are producing a facility that makes best use of that so when we get to capacity and even over, it will be quite clear where to put those resources.

"And at that point we will be ready to receive the equipment, the staff and then the patients, at scale and at pace, at the same standard occurring in the NHS."

Military personnel at NHS Nightingale
Image: Military personnel have helped build NHS Nightingale

This means patients with other serious underlying health conditions, or those who require specialist treatment that is not COVID-19-related, will not be treated here. It is a single purpose hospital.

This weekend brides-to-be, their excited friends and families expected to make difficult decisions about wedding gowns and decoration at London's ExCel. But the National Wedding Show has been cancelled.

Instead the difficult decisions might be life and death ones taken by overworked front-line doctors.

The facility will be used to treat COVID-19 patients
Image: The facility will be used to treat COVID-19 patients

A 21st century global pandemic requires an unprecedented response and the NHS Nightingale is just that.

It is a logistical and engineering marvel.

It has gone from a blank sheet to fully operational hospital in less than a fortnight. And that has been made possible because of military expertise.

The language used by the prime minister and his aides is martial. There's much talk of battle lines being drawn.

Ventilators are stored and ready to be used
Image: Ventilators are stored and ready to be used

So it is appropriate the Ministry of Defence was asked to help deliver this project. Skills honed on the battlefields of Afghanistan have been deployed to the frontline in east London.

It is what Colonel Ashleigh Boreham does best.

"People keep talking about a battle," he said.

"It's an unseen enemy. It still is a battle. And it is a timeline that you are working to.

"It's always trying to get ahead of the picture, of the enemy. And in this case you are trying to get ahead of a virus.

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