The Duke of Cambridge has praised NHS workers’ “selfless commitment” as he officially opened Birmingham’s Nightingale Hospital.
William said the temporary field hospital – built inside the NEC exhibition centre in just eight days – was also a “wonderful example” of the “pulling together” going on up and down the UK amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
In a speech on Thursday, delivered via video-link because of social distancing rules, William said he was happy to be attending “in digital spirit at least” and later joined in remotely with a clap for carers.
Personally recognising the hard-working staff who had made the project a reality, he deviated slightly from his prepared speech by saying “hospitals are about the people and not the bricks”.
Addressing the cavernous space into which hundreds of ward beds have now been installed, he said: “The Nightingale hospitals will rightly go down as landmarks in the history of the NHS.”
The hospital is the second of seven planned Nightingale NHS facilities to open, after the first became operational at London’s ExCel centre.
With 500 beds already installed, the NEC-based field hospital, which has its own mortuary and pop-up Tesco shop, could be increased to take up to 4,000 people if needed.
It has yet to take its first patients since becoming fully operational on April 10, with clinicians hoping it will never reach anything like capacity.
More than 400 civilian contractors, together with military personnel and about 500 clinical staff, have been involved in the setting-up.
In his speech to about 50 healthcare, military and civilian personnel – all socially-distanced – the duke said: “Let me start by reiterating all that has been said so far and paying tribute to the incredible work that NHS staff across the country have been doing to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
“Their selfless commitment has touched the hearts of the entire nation.”
He added: “The building you are standing in is yet another example of how people across the country have risen to this unprecedented challenge.
“The Nightingale hospitals will rightly go down as landmarks in the history of the NHS.
“The NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham is a wonderful example of Britain pulling together.
“Having spoken to some of the people who helped build it, hospitals are about the people and not the bricks.
“NHS staff, armed forces, local government, and the private sector have collectively stepped up to turn this exhibition centre into a hospital.
“You all deserve our huge thanks, and you should all be hugely proud of what you have achieved in such a short space of time.
“I know that the Nightingale Birmingham will provide invaluable resources for hospitals from miles and miles around.
“This will reassure people across the Midlands that if their local hospitals reach capacity, there will be extra beds available for their loved ones here.
“I find that very comforting and I know many other people will too.
“I want to thank you all so much for what you are doing to ensure we give the best possible care to those affected at this most challenging of times.
“Finally, I am delighted to declare the NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham officially open.”
Before the speech, the duke spoke to staff involved in the build, including associate medical director Jamie Coleman, and lead nurse for clinical environment, Helen Gyves, praising their “Herculean effort”.
Mrs Gyves said: “It was lovely, he took quite a decent amount of time to chat to us all, had something really nice to say, asked us all about our families, which is quite emotional, I suppose – that we’re all here and we feel like everything’s revolving around here and our families are all at home, isolated.
“He asked us what we’d learned from it all, how we felt it had all gone, what messages we had and I think Jamie Coleman said a very good statement: that this is about the people in the building, not the bricks and mortar.
“So let’s get past how it looks, let’s just get on and look after the patients as best we can, like we would anywhere.”
The facility will be run by University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust (UHB), taking patients convalescing from coronavirus, freeing up the main hospitals to care for the most critically ill.
Trust chief executive Dr David Rosser told the PA news agency the hospital would help prevent “awful scenes” like those seen in Italy of critical care wards filled to capacity.
He added there was now “a different problem” emerging, as it became clearer the peak could be managed, with Covid-19 affecting the population over the longer term.
“We need to think how else we use this facility to help us through the next couple of years,” he said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, speaking over video-link, said the hospital would help create vital extra NHS capacity.
“I’m glad to say that the huge huge efforts of the people of the West Midlands and across the country appear to be now working,” he added.