Covid-19: Entire wards to be converted into Intensive Care Units at Wigan Infirmary to help cope with pandemic

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The chief executive of Wigan’s hospital trust has urged everyone in the borough to follow guidance on social distancing, insisting that it will give the NHS the greatest chance of successfully fighting Covid-19.

WWL is ramping up its war against the pandemic ahead of an anticipated escalation in deaths, but chief executive Silas Nicholls said the extensive battle plan will not work if residents don’t play their part and delay the spread of the virus. In an exclusive interview with the Observer, Mr Nicholls outlines some huge measures that WWL is taking in the fight against Coronavirus:

Wigan Infirmary will become entirely devoted to Covid-19 cases, tripling the number of critical care beds

Entire wards to be converted into Intensive Care Units

WWL Chief Executive Silas NichollsWWL Chief Executive Silas Nicholls
WWL Chief Executive Silas Nicholls | jpimedia

An army of volunteers to be recruited

New building being constructed to cope with demand

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Wrightington hospital to handle all non-Covid emergency treatment

Parking charges across all NHS sites scrapped for both staff and visitors

But if people do not follow the Government’s guidance on social distancing, the virus will continue to spread uncontrollably, leaving the NHS overwhelmed and unable to put its new plans into practice, Mr Nicholls warned.

People have got to follow the advice on social distancing,” he said.

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“I went into Wigan town centre last week and I was shocked to still see people in pubs, in betting shops, and still shopping as if nothing had happened. I get that these people want to maintain a normal life but unfortunately we are not living in normal times. I’m really worried my hospital won’t have enough time to do all this preparation, and we’ll be swamped very quickly.”

He added: “Social distancing is so important. It’s not the cure, it won’t defeat the virus itself but it will slow it down.

“It’s all about buying us time, to prepare, to train staff. The more time we have, the more my staff will have the ability to gear up for this. If we lose that time, things will get very difficult.

“I am doing my utmost personally to make sure all of us at the hospital are doing our best to keep the people of Wigan safe and cared for. We are committed to making that happen.”

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Mr Nicholls was appointed as the chief executive of the trust in June 2019, bringing with him more than 25 years of NHS experience. He said the Coronavirus outbreak was the biggest challenge he has ever seen the NHS face.”

Medical staff across the borough have already been working 12-14 days, seven days a week, to make sure everything is in place to treat patients diagnosed with Covid-19. The Holiday Inn Express at Martland Park has dedicated an entire floor to housing medical staff, who might otherwise have had to avoid work due to family members self-isolating.

Mr Nicholls said: “We have plans in place to treble out critical care capacity and we’re going to achieve that by pressing into service every single piece of available machinery and equipment.

“We will be converting our wards and recovery rooms into Intensive Care Units.

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“This will certainly give us a fighting chance against the first wave of Covid-19 as it hits us in the coming weeks.

“We are changing how our hospitals function.

“Wigan Infirmary is pretty much going to become entirely devoted to looking after patients with Covid-19. We already have three wards set up for high, low and medium risk patients, in a controlled environment.

“What we are anticipating is that all the wards will switch to looking after patients who either have Covid-19 or are suspected to have it.”

Building work has also commenced on a new unit in front of the Infirmary, where a new facility is being built.

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Once constructed, it will house 52 new beds to cope with the pressure.

If the Government delivers on its promise to provide more ventilators, then around 28 of the beds will be for critical care.

Construction workers from the Darwin Group and Ainscough Industrial Services are working “at breakneck speed” to build the new unit, which will be in use by May 2 at the very latest.

“Wrightington Hospital will also change,” Mr Nicholls said.

“Wrightington will be focussing on all non-covid emergency work, such as if someone has a car accident and they need major trauma surgery. We are really focused on the virus but also recognise there are still other things going on that we need to address.

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“Staff are going through a huge programme of training to use personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We are training non-clinical staff, as we imagine they will have to be deployed to help on the wards. Myself and my senior team have had our PPE because we anticipate we will have to have out onto the wards to help out.”

The message to avoid A&E wherever possible was being heeded by the majority of Wiganers, Mr Nicholls said, which was helping medical staff divert as much resource as possible to those with Covid-19.

And for the foreseeable future, parking charges will be scrapped across all WWL sites for both NHS staff and hospital visitors, as the pandemic takes a financial toll.

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Taking the time to praise his tireless workforce, Mr Nicholls said: “There is an absolute sense of determination among our staff. It’s a bit of a catchphrase to talk about the ‘wartime spirit’, but it is palpable. They are up for this fight. We are getting things done in days that, under normal conditions, would take weeks.

“People are pulling together and everyone is working as a team. There is no distinction between the doctors, the nurses and the porters. We are standing shoulder to shoulder.”