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What's happened to the Nightingale Hospitals?

The interior of the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Harrogate. (PA)
The interior of the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Harrogate. (PA)

Despite much initial fanfare, the NHS Nightingale Hospitals - part of the UK's planned response to COVID - were barely used. Now, years later, there are claims money spent on the sites has been lost.

Hundreds of the beds bought for Nightingale wards are being sold for as little as £6, despite being bought for £2,500 each, the Mirror has reported.

Since the end of the pandemic, the NHS has been left with thousands of these beds that do not meet current hospital standards so cannot be repurposed into existing health facilities.

The NHS told the Mirror: "There was a small number of beds that was specifically tailored for the Nightingale that could not be re-purposed and they have been sold to private sellers to recover costs for the taxpayer."

In fact, according to a written answer by former health minister Lord Bethell in January 2021, the forecast for total costs including set-up, running costs, stand-by costs, and costs of decommissioning across all Nightingales was expected to reach around £532 million covering the tail end of 2020/21 and 2021/22.

Where were the Nightingale Hospitals?

There were seven Nightingale Hospitals in total across England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all having their own plan for expanding capacity.

The London site opened first, followed by Birmingham, Exeter, Bristol, Manchester, Harrogate and Sunderland.

Scotland opened the NHS Louisa Jordan in Glasgow with 300 beds.

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Staff recruited to run the new NHS Nightingale Hospital Yorkshire and Humber in Harrogate. (PA)
Staff recruited to run the new NHS Nightingale Hospital Yorkshire and Humber in Harrogate. (PA)

In Wales, the local government opened the Dragon's Heart Hospital in Cardiff as well as more than a dozen regional field hospitals.

'Preparing for the worst'

The London hospital opened on 3 April by then Prince Charles to much fanfare just weeks after the country had been put into lockdown.

The plan was for the hospital to house COVID-19 patients when other hospitals ran out of beds.

At the time Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS was "preparing for the worst but hoping for the best".

The ExCel centre in London where the temporary NHS Nightingale Hospital was housed. (PA)
The ExCel centre in London where the temporary NHS Nightingale Hospital was housed. (PA)

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The Nightingale hospitals were purely for overflow, with patients always being admitted to traditional hospitals first.

Despite the government promoting them as evidence of them getting on top of the pandemic only London and Manchester ever admitted any patients.

In total, fewer than 1,000 patients were admitted and most of the hospitals had been repurposed or mothballed by June 2020.

Shortage of staff

A key problem was staffing the hospitals with estimates predicting if the London Nightingale was ever at full capacity it would have needed 16,000 staff - that would have made it the largest intensive care ward in Europe.

While extra support staff could be hired, qualified nurses and doctors were in very short supply and all available capacity had already been redeployed to existing pandemic wards in traditional hospitals.

As the pandemic went on, bed shortages continued to be a problem for hospitals across the country but the real lynchpin was nursing shortages.

Staff inside NHS Nightingale Hospital Yorkshire and Humber. (PA)
Staff inside NHS Nightingale Hospital Yorkshire and Humber. (PA)

The NHS had major staff shortages prior to the start of the pandemic and this was only made worse by the regular need for health staff to isolate when they caught COVID, causing chaos in hospital wards.

Just weeks after the London Nightingale opened it rejected 50 patients in need of "life or death" care because of a lack of critical care nurses.

At the time it had only treated 41 patients, meaning it turned away more than it accepted.

The last time the NHS considered using the Nightingale facilities for COVID was during the Omicron wave at the end of 2021.

Nightingale "surge hubs" were established in preparation for a wave of new hospital admissions.

They were far smaller facilities around 100 capacity each and were established on the grounds of existing hospitals.

The NHS also prepared plans for taking over large spaces like stadiums and gyms to set up another 4,000 beds, but this was never used.

Since the end of the pandemic, some of the Nightingale hospitals have been repurposed.

In Exeter, their hospital has been repurposed as a diagnostics centre and offers specialist eye, rheumatology and ophthalmology treatments.

The local health service has used the repurposed facility to help cut down the waiting lists that are currently impacting millions of people across the country.