A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is heading the military side of an unprecedented push to turn an exhibition centre in London into a giant coronavirus hospital.

 

Colonel Ashleigh Boreham, commanding officer of 256 City of London Field Hospital, says his team is united with the NHS on a single mission to save lives.

It’s the biggest job I’ve ever done, he said, referring to the conversation of the ExCel centre in east London into the Nightingale, a temporary hospital that is set to start accepting COVID-19 patients this week.

But you know what, I’ve spent 27 years [in the military] on a journey to this moment.

I’ve got the experience, I’m the right person at the right time, maybe, for this particular project.

NHS London is leading the operation with support from dozens of service personnel, including those like Col Boreham with experience of field hospitals in war zones.

But this time – on home turf and with the enemy an invisible virus instead of opposition forces – it is different, more personal.

I’m from London, I have friends and family in London, said Col Boreham, who is the head of the medical advisory and mentoring team helping the NHS.

Many of the people working here, many of the soldiers working here, are from London.

It is very personal, it cannot be anything else.

It focuses the mind, and that is why you have everyone pulling together, there is one common purpose. You are saving people’s lives.

The married father-of-two, whose unit is a mixture of regular soldiers and reservists, was serving out his final few weeks in the army when the call came less than a fortnight ago, asking him to explore whether the ExCel centre could be made into a 4,000-bed hospital.

He said: We literally got a phone call, arrived here, met up with the NHS about nine days ago, sat around a table and basically did what you always do.

We draw a plan up, over a brew, and then from that you start to build up a plan and create the product.

A team of about 60 to 65 military personnel – though sometimes as many as 200 – have been working on the transformation ever since.

It’s a combination of medical planning, logistics, engineering, and what we would recognise as tasks that need to be done like building beds, laying floors, Col Boreham said.

In a sign of the magnitude of the project, the military helped to lay four miles of copper piping for oxygen.

The other thing is providing specialist advice in certain areas in terms of patient information, management systems, medical planning, medical logistics, the things that the NHS do really well… but we just put it into the context of when it is at scale, the colonel said.

He said the difference between the Nightingale and field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan was that the temporary NHS facility is designed to serve a single purpose – COVID-19 patients – whereas in war zones the military has to build trauma centres that can handle multiple different ailments.

But there are parallels too between fighting coronavirus and fighting a war.

We just see it as; this is what we do, we are trained to do this, Col Boreham said, noting that the aim is for the military teams to build up NHS capacity and then step back.

As well as engineers and other field hospital specialists, troops have been brought in to help with the heavy lifting.

Among them is Lieutenant Michael Andrews, a platoon commander with A (Norfolk) Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment.

He and his platoon were flown home early from a training mission in Sierra Leone as travel restrictions kicked in because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now they are helping to build London’s coronavirus hospital, which is expected to have an initial capacity of about 500 beds.

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So far we’ve been laying vinyl flooring in the medical bays, assisting with the build of the hospital beds and mattresses and other low level tasks which frees up specialist trades, Lieutenant Andrews said.

It’s personal because you are helping to lay the foundations for what is such a momentous and incredible achievement.

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(c) Sky News 2020: Coronavirus: Military chief helping build London’s Nightingale hospital on mission to save lives