The creation from scratch of Nightingale hospitals across the UK to cope with potential surges in coronavirus cases was a logistical feat on a scale and pace rarely seen in peacetime. Utilities providers had a key role to play in this national effort. As part of our Keeping Us Connected campaign we hear from Thames Water, UK Power Networks, Electricity North West and Bristol Water about their experiences.

Thames played an essential part in turning the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands into a 4,000 bed hospital in an operation that was conceived and delivered in just two weeks.

James St Jean, the field operations specialist who oversaw the work at the hospital on behalf of Thames, tells Utility Week the effort from all parties working together to prepare the site was remarkable.

There was significant groundwork required before the team was confident from a network perspective that the Excel Centre could sustain the changes.

St Jean says Thames made its basic plan the day after the PM’s announcement and was onsite the following day.

“Within seven days we had virtually completed our side, other than a few snagging details, before the NHS was in there. I was really pleased with the support from all parts of the business to complete our task.”

The site had water and wastewater supplies already in place to serve the up to 60,000 visitors to the Excel Centre for conferences and events, with two 20,000-litre tanks, which are dual fed. These had to be assessed to ensure they would be robust enough to cope with the hospital’s demand.

St Jean explains Thames had to ensure all its assets were available externally to ensure resilience for the site.

The 40,000 litres of storage capacity means water can be pumped around the building to guarantee the supply.

“If there was a lack of pressure the break tanks would be used to pump around the building and supply would not suffer,” St Jean says. These are fed from the mains supply to ensure constant availability of water.

“We have done similar work before but never had to do it so quickly. In 2010-11 we prepared for the Olympics – this was an Olympic site itself so we had some form of groundwork about what we may need to do and what we might expect. We had to expedite those plans and add to them as we saw fit for the site and ensure we got it done in a timely fashion.”

The challenges of this extraordinary task included adhering to the specific regulations for hospitals. “Hospitals have different water regulations, to do with break tanks and the backflow issues for example so there cannot be any back surge into the network at all,” St Jean said.

“There was quite a bit of work done by the water regulations and the water quality team around that. Backflow protection was the main concern because it could have caused contamination.”

The risk of contamination could be present if air gaps were present and a tank became flooded. Regulation stipulates that non-return valves must be used to protect systems from that risk.

St Jean praises his colleagues and the teams who worked on the NHS Nightingale. “The help we received from stakeholders including engineering managers from the Excel Centre, who was extremely helpful. Everyone who worked with our repair and maintenance teams and water regulation, water quality, and everything else.”

One challenge on the network side was adjusting hydrants that the team were concerned could be problematic now and in the future. Another problem was working with mains pipes three metres underground which needed excavation to reach the point connections had to be made.

St Jean says the major difference between this and other large projects, other than the speed, was the collaboration. There was a team of eight from Thames directly involved with the project as well as numerous stakeholders including contractors forming an “alliance partnership” to complete the site.

“On any large project we work with lots of different people individually for leakage optimisation, system optimisation, water regulations, water quality, London fire brigade, wastewater repair, maintenance, large assets,” St Jean says. “For this project everyone had to work altogether and have all been fantastic putting this together and working so quickly to ensure the Nightingale is up and running.”

Aside from preparing Nightingale, St Jean and his team at Thames visited 40 hospitals in and around London to make sure all assets such as hydrants and valves were assessed and available as well as providing information for all sites in case they experienced any problems with supply.

Tankers have been made available for hospitals including two dedicated for Nightingale on standby 24 hours a day at nearby water treatment works. These are flushed, sampled and re-filled every 72 hours should they be required by hospitals and will be available until mid-May.

St Jean adds: “It’s very important what the whole sector is doing. I think we were considered about the 50th emergency service in peacetime but I think we’ve moved up in the estimation now.”

UKPN

Connections experts from UK Power Networks (UKPN) were also involved in helping advise the team behind the Excel Nightingale. This required an upgrade to the privately-owned electricity network which supplies the site.

The experts’ involvement was in an advisory capacity and they were able to provide guidance on how more resilience could be installed to the electrical infrastructure.

A spokesperson for UKPN says: “Our team drew on their extensive knowledge and experience of distribution planning and the project management of high profile developments in London, to inform the hospital how best to proceed.  We treat all requests for work from hospitals and other vital healthcare organisations as a priority at the moment, so they can expand their services as required to help save lives.”

ENW

In Manchester, engineers from network operator Electricity North West supported the construction of the region’s first specialist field hospital.

NHS Nightingale Hospital North West is based at Manchester Central Conference Centre has the capacity for up to 750 patients.

Prior to its opening, ENW ensured the existing electrical infrastructure was able to support the new facility while a second reserve electricity supply was also installed along with additional assets to protect the new hospital’s power supply.

Mark Williamson, energy solutions director at Electricity North West, says: “We’ve worked closely with key stakeholders and Manchester City Council to ensure our work at NHS Nightingale Hospital North West was completed as quickly as possible.

“Our teams of skilled engineers carried out detailed assessments ensuring the infrastructure was suitable for the change in use of the site, and we have also installed the latest automation and remote-control technology adding additional security, further protecting the hospital’s electricity network from the risk of disruption.

“We provide a critical service and our employees have been named as key workers throughout the pandemic. We’re proud to support the NHS and provide the essential service they need right now to help them do their amazing work that we are all thankful for.”

In addition to contributing to the NHS Nightingale hospital, ENW is carrying out work to increase the electricity supply to Oaklands Hospital in neighbouring Salford.

Bristol Water

The latest Nightingale hospital opened this week in Bristol at University West of England, where Bristol Water played a crucial role in turning the university building into a hospital for 300 patients.

The company proactively learnt about the project at the start of the month and had completed tasks to ensure the hospital had a reliable water supply within two weeks.

The water quality team at Bristol said the site previously had no storage available, which would pose a problem if supply was suddenly lost and the site could be left without a backup option.

The company carried out assessments with ATI, Imperial College and Inflow Matrix to modify pipework and work up an extensive early warning system to protect the hospital and allow Bristol to put a rapid response plan in place.

The Bristol Nightingale Hospital now has some of the most extensive water supply monitoring in the country coupled with 24-hour monitoring by the water company.

As part of continuous water supply plans for the site, an injection point was installed, with two dedicated tankers on standby four miles away to provide up to six hours of continuous supply if needed.

Samantha Vince, head of water quality at Bristol, said: “The hospital venue is thought to be the only one in the country without options for on-site storage in place prior to its new use. Within just two weeks, we’ve provided state of the art monitoring which can allow us to react very quickly.  Also ensuring that what is place conforms in full to all water quality regulations, despite emergency legislation initially not recognising the need to maintain these requirements.”

Keeping Us Connected is a new series from Utility Week in which we highlight the achievements of employees across the utilities sector in getting the UK through lockdown. To nominate a member of your team for recognition, please email jameswallin@fav-house.com.

What to read next