Steve Shaw reports on local councillors’ fears that services will soon be overwhelmed in Britain’s Coronavirus hotspot if the Government refuses to take urgent action

South Essex has become Britain’s hotspot in the battle against the Coronavirus after months of having it under control.

Now, many local councillors fear that its health services are on the verge of being completely overrun. There has even been talk of offering hotel rooms to non-COVID patients to free up hospital spaces.

“We are really in the trenches,” Councillor Martin Terry, who oversees public protection for the area, told Byline Times. “It appears to be driven by this new and more contagious variant which mainly kicked off in Basildon but then people mix between there and Southend and Castle Point. Our rates have come down marginally but they are still in the 900s per 100,000.

“It is causing a massive headache for health services and the NHS here has reached the critical point where they are taking in more people than they are discharging. As a council, we are having to start looking at ways we can find step-down beds so people who are not critical can be discharged into COVID-secure areas somewhere.”

His biggest question is what has happened to the Government’s promise that the temporary Nightingale hospital, housed in the Excel London convention centre in east London, would relieve the strain on services.

“I am really concerned about the decision-making from the Government,” he said. “Health Secretary Matt Hancock was asked a direct question last week about the Excel when he did his House of Commons briefing and he completely ignored it. I have since contacted him directly and never had a response either from him or from the local MPs. Opening that Nightingale hospital is just the logical thing to do to help those living in places like Essex and the Thames Corridor. I wouldn’t call it all a big PR stunt from Westminster but I think, like a lot of things, it is bad decision-making.”

Across the border of Southend, Basildon’s deputy leader, Councillor Kerry Smith, has also said that the Nightingale hospitals should now be deployed.

“We need to get staff into hospitals very quickly – where are the 30,000 volunteers who signed up?” he told local media. “It is time the Government put its foot to the floor and deals with this. We’ve all been behind the NHS but the Government needs to join us in backing it too. We cannot be turning away people who need other medical attention but it’s looking likely.”

Hotels as Hospitals

London’s Nightingale Hospital was originally meant to have 4,000 beds but treated just 54 patients by the time it was closed in May during the first wave of the Coronavirus.

Rumours have now begun circulating that the temporary hospital may have been decommissioned entirely despite Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock denying this. The NHS has also said that the Nightingale hospitals are being prepared for use.

But with no sign that the Government will be providing Essex with the relief the county’s councillors are desperately calling for, discussions have turned to whether patients without COVID-19 should be placed into Southend’s many closed down hotels or even into council offices so that the hospitals can free up bed space.

The suggestion came from Southend’s Councillor Dan Nelson who told the Echo that, if something is not done soon, the borough’s hospitals will be completely overwhelmed.

“There are lots of patients in Southend Hospital wards where COVID is present that do not need to be there and are waiting to be discharged,” he said. “These people should not be waiting in wards for care packages. We could rent hotels that are closed or have a temporary structures or even use the council offices.”

When the pandemic initially hit Essex, councils acted swiftly to curtail the virus and many of the measures proved to be a sweeping success. Even after Southend was hit with its usual flood of tourists heading to the seafront during the summer, the council still did not find any major outbreak associated with the region.

This changed when the new and far more infectious strain emerged in Kent.

Within weeks it hit the county hard and, by the end of December, a major incident was declared due to the stress placed on hospitals and social care settings. It remains in tier four and the south of the county become one of the worst-affected districts in England.

Southend’s Martin Terry said that soaring infections have come from the new strain but also the “indecisive, default position” of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which is leaving many confused about the rules they are meant to be following.

Even the councils themselves have struggled to keep up with the Government’s announcements. When Basildon was moved into tier three at the beginning of December, Council Leader Gavin Callaghan posted a video on social media in which he said he had found out what was happening in the borough through a tweet. “Neither I, as the elected leader of the council, nor the chief executive of the council, were given any warning whatsoever, we were not told by anybody in Government this was going to happen,” he said. “It is incredibly frustrating.”

The Coronavirus is now spreading beyond the south of the country. In the West Midlands, cases of the new strain have more than tripled in two weeks.

Byline Times revealed last month that Birmingham’s emergency Nightingale hospital, designed to cope with a surge in COVID-19 cases, has not admitted a single patient in the eight months since it opened. It has been noted that the biggest challenge for hospitals is the lack of NHS resources, specifically staff. In total, seven Nightingale hospitals had been constructed across the country at a total cost of £220 million.


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