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The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a state of urgency in public services, particularly healthcare, on a scale never seen before in modern times. As nations the world over struggle to cope with an increase in the number of infected patients, there has been an equally visible shortage of medical resources including facilities, personnel and equipment.

On April 3, 2020, the London NHS Nightingale Hospital, one of six such emergency facilities in the United Kingdom, was opened to cope with the added pressure on UK’s National Health Services (NHS) during the pandemic. Named after Florence Nightingale, the pioneering British nurse and social reformer, the hospital was built at unprecedented speed - in just nine days - at ExCel London, an exhibition and convention center in London. Holding a capacity of over 4,000 beds, the facility was conceived amidst concern that NHS hospitals could be overwhelmed given the number of patients requiring hospital treatment for coronavirus. 

But several critical concerns needed to be addressed as an existing space was being repurposed to serve as an emergency health facility. Unhindered power supply, design and architectural specifications, patient safety procedures, and robust telecommunications were just a few of many imperatives that needed to be met. Addressing such requirements under a stiff deadline was an even more arduous task. There was no room for error or delay as life itself was the bottom line. 

Tall order, short span of time

Openreach, which builds and maintains the largest fixed communications network, was assigned the task of providing network connectivity within the Nightingale. It looked to TCS for the design of a critical network circuit for this.  TCS has been a partner of Openreach for over 12 years, building business networks that connect thousands of schools, hospitals, financial institutions, mobile masts and large businesses in the UK.  It designs Openreach’s fiber broadband and copper network for millions of such premises across the country.

The ‘super priority’ circuit for the hospital was designed within just one day. The primary focus when building the circuit for the Nightingale was to ensure it had resilient back-up options. It was decided that an Ethernet Access Direct circuit (EAD) be designed to provide point-to-point data connectivity between sites in the healthcare provider’s network -- including their supply chain, emergency services such as paramedic teams, and administrative headquarters. The circuit would also enable a variety of critical activities such as connecting the Nightingale to other hospitals, linking patient records in real time, enabling wi-fi for medical devices, linking at least 1,000 voice-over-internet phones, and providing cellular connectivity to help on-duty medical staff stay connected to each other.

Up against a global health crisis

Despite the UK and India going into lockdown, teams across both locations mobilized all resources to execute the task, functioning remotely to help lay the foundation for the digital communications infrastructure that would support the new medical facility. While fiber network experts worked through the night to complete the design, a systems assurance team constantly monitored it. The implementation, which helped create an ultra-fast wi-fi network, went live within 24 hours.

Reporting on the swift establishment of the Nightingale, a BBC news article stated that “in nine days, the 87,328 square metres of double exhibition halls have been fitted out with the framework for about 80 wards, each with 42 beds”, and that “some 500 fully-equipped beds, with oxygen and ventilators, are already in place and there is space for another 3,500”. The news report also mentioned that were the Nightingale to reach capacity, it would be among the largest hospitals in the world.

NHS leaders have lauded the strategy behind the rapid development of the Nightingale as a mark of how well the health service prepared itself for the biggest public health emergency in a century. The crucial role that digital technology has played in establishing this preparedness cannot be denied.