My Nightingale Experience

Laura Williams

The arrival of COVID-19 has presented as much of a communications challenge as it has a health and societal one.

Our Account Manager, Laura Williams, (formally of Barts Health NHS Trust and Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity communications teams) reflects on her experience working within the country’s most famous temporary hospital, NHS Nightingale London.

In a press briefing on 24 March, the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, announced plans to create a new hospital. Much of the Government’s focus at that stage was meeting an anticipated surge in demand for critical care that the existing NHS was not considered able to meet.

The Excel Centre was rapidly transformed into the UK’s first field hospital to provide the NHS with extra critical care capacity for COVID-19 patients. It was set up and staffed by the NHS in London, supported by Barts Health NHS Trust, the armed forces, the Mayor of London’s office, and others, within a matter of days. The hospital was formally opened by the Prince of Wales, and NHS staff opened its doors to welcome its first patient on 7 April.

I remember walking through those same hospital doors in early May and feeling a sense of nervous energy as I collected my staff pass to join the NHS Nightingale Communications Team. A poignant moment that I remember was observing the friendly atmosphere in the building. Everyone I met was approachable and extremely supportive during my first few weeks.  It was fascinating to see so many people from different backgrounds and work experiences coming together and sharing the same goal; helping the NHS during this pandemic and making a difference.

One Clinician described that he had found the learning experience at NHS Nightingale inspiring and empowering. Clinical staff would often share how joining the Nightingale Hospital had provided them with an opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues and learn new skills from other NHS Trusts across the country. For others, it inspired them to consider a future career in healthcare or had reignited their passion for lending a helping hand in a national crisis.

The setup of the NHS Nightingale Hospital also reflects how COVID-19 has shaped the way that the NHS will run in the future. Waiting rooms in outpatients could become a thing of the past, as more primary care services and consultations are looking to shift to online appointments and virtual ways of working, which will ease pressure on hospital waiting times. The quick set-up of the field hospital also reflected that the NHS can be versatile and rapidly adapt to change.

Dealing with journalist enquiries was challenging, but despite the added pressure from the press and social media, it was evident to see that providing compassionate care to patients was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It is positive that the hospital was never used to its full capacity, given that this reflected the success of the rest of the system in meeting demand, although as it entered standby mode, it will remain as an insurance policy in the event of a second wave of COVID-19.

As Communications professionals, we are used to adapting our messaging to reflect change, particularly in a crisis. One of the most valuable lessons I learnt was the power of internal communication. Getting this right and communicating big changes to staff was so important, especially when we had to communicate to our staff that the Nightingale was entering hibernation mode. Collaboration between internal and external communication is vital when protecting the reputation of your organisation.

It’s certainly been one of the most exhilarating and emotional experiences of my career to date so far. To support the NHS during a national crisis and watch so many people collaborate and join forces for the same cause was extremely inspiring. As the Nightingale entered hibernation mode, I felt sad, but I do hope that it will not be needed to re-open again as COVID-19 rates decline. That said, I’m proud to have been a member of the NHS Nightingale Hospital team.