Special Report: Coronavirus

Special Report: Coronavirus

Professional Builder’s Lee Jones talks to some of the Royal Engineers servicemen who have joined the fight against Covid-19.

The unique role of the Royal Engineers, as both builders and soldiers, has seen them play a part in supplying the supporting infrastructure in the battle against Covid-19. At the very height of the lockdown, the Corps’ special brand of building expertise was in attendance at the nine-day transformation of London’s Excel exhibition centre into NHS Nightingale, one of a network of specialist Covid-19 medical facilities around the country.

The regiment’s tradespeople are already well-versed in erecting a diverse range of buildings, services and infrastructure at speed right around the world, and it was those experiences that were brought to bear on this east London build. If its peak capacity was required, the project would ultimately provide maximum capacity for 4,000 beds, across 80 wards with, up to 16,000 staff in attendance. Within just over a week, all of those individual bays had been constructed, and the first 500 fully equipped beds had been installed, ready for an official opening by the Prince of Wales.

“The military contribution to NHS Nightingale was a combination of specialist skills in planning and logistics, as well as soldiers like those under my command who were helping to deliver the project on the ground,” explains Lieutenant Stuart Taylor. “We construct all kinds of facilities in remote areas and are well-practised in improvising and adapting to a location, and that’s why we need a whole range of trades on hand. We were recently part of an earthquake relief team in Nepal, for instance, and were building field hospitals as part of Operation Trenton in South Sudan. At NHS Nightingale we had carpenters & joiners, plumbers, electricians and fitters on the project, all liaising with civilian contractors and all concerned were acutely aware of the importance of what we were doing.”

Construction site supervisor on the site, Staff Sergeant Yak Angbhuhong is also a carpenter & joiner, and he describes how that experience is played out in practice. “The materials we used were selected for ease of build and their light weight. That’s why we used MDF and plywood as party walls for each of the bed bays. In many respects an exhibition centre is an ideal location for a temporary hospital because it is designed to be quickly converted to serve different purposes, and the utilities, services and offices are already in place but, because the electrics and the plumbing are servicing critical care machinery like ventilators, everything had to be the highest spec, because failure of the components isn’t really an option.”

The NHS Nightingale concept was unique in that it was envisaged as a critical care centre for patients who were already on a ventilator. Royal Engineers’ electricians were involved in installing the cabling and trunking for the arsenal of equipment that monitors those patients, whilst the regiment’s plumbers helped install well over a mile of copper piping for medical air and oxygen, as well as putting in place the fittings and service points around the beds.

Whilst time was of the essence, no compromise on quality could be countenanced, as the Regiments’ Intelligence Officer, Captain Day explains: “NHS Nightingale is a response to a national crisis and everything that was required was thrown at it. That is certainly where the armed forces presence helped, because rapid deployment is at the heart of what we do. Although we had guys with us who had recently built field hospitals, it was clear by the time we’d finished it that what we had helped construct was a proper NHS hospital, delivered to the standard you would expect of any medical facility in the country, and that was one of things of which we were most proud.”

Given the exponential spread of the coronavirus in the early weeks of the epidemic, it is that emphasis on speed of movement that has seen the Royal Engineers in demand. On every occasion, Lieutenant Taylor identifies the camaraderie between the civilian and service workforce as one of the most positive aspects. “There’s been a lot of learning from each other, as well as lasting friendships,” he concludes. “Because the facility was designed to save lives, everyone pulled together on Nightingale to get the job done.”

For further information on the work of the Corps of the Royal Engineers visit army.mod.uk/who-we-are/corps-regiments-and-units/corps-of-royal-engineers


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