Hospitals in the West Midlands are forecast to reach maximum capacity by next weekend, the region’s mayor has said, amid growing concern that one in five deaths from coronavirus in England have happened in the Midlands.
Andy Street said the West Midlands appeared to be the UK’s next hotspot after London and that Birmingham’s new field hospital would be ready to open by next Saturday or Sunday when admissions are expected to peak.
Analysis by the Guardian has found that 21% of the 3,302 deaths reported in English hospitals to date have occurred in the Midlands, while University hospitals Birmingham NHS foundation trust has recorded the third highest number of deaths of any trust in the country at 102 deaths.
Street said the Nightingale hospital at the Birmingham NEC arena would initially take 500 patients but have capacity to hold even more than the 3,000 at London’s ExCeL – potentially making it the biggest medical facility in the UK.
“The expectation, given the modelling of how this disease is spreading, means that we will need the capacity at the NEC Nightingale hospital at about the time it’s due to open,” Street said.
A separate political source said there was growing alarm about a lack of ventilators for patients suffering the worst effects of the virus. The source said there were only 240 ventilators in the West Midlands and that the region would need 2,500 by 11 April, when patient numbers are expected to peak.
Toby Lewis, the chief executive of Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals NHS trust, said: “Clearly this area – Birmingham and the Black Country – is the absolute priority for ventilator provision and it is fantastic that the NHS have recognised that. We are seeing equipment arriving today and more equipment arriving tomorrow.
“That is very, very important because across the NHS locally at the moment we are training staff to work in slightly different areas in the ones they work in currently so it is really important that we have the equipment in place to give staff the confidence in the care that they are going to provide but I am very clear that this time tomorrow we will have more ventilators to work with as will neighbouring institutions.”
Nick Page, the chief executive of Solihull council, said a further 253 ventilators would be delivered on Saturday to Solihull and the Black Country.
Street said hospitals in the West Midlands were coping with the huge influx of coronavirus patients with a “herculean effort” but that they were soon expected to reach capacity. Officials in the region believe its number of cases is tracking about two weeks behind London.
The Conservative mayor, a former managing director of John Lewis, described transforming the NEC into potentially the UK’s biggest field hospital as “our Dunkirk moment” and said it had taken “eye-watering effort” and coordination across multiple sectors. A temporary mortuary with space for up to 12,000 bodies is being built at Birmingham airport, next to the NEC.
So far 693 deaths from coronavirus in England have been registered in the Midlands – 2second only to London, where almost a third of all deaths in the country have been recorded.
As well as University hospitals Birmingham, two other Midlands trusts are among those with the highest death count: the Royal Wolverhampton NHS trust has recorded 81 deaths – the fourth highest number of deaths in England – while Sandwell West Birmingham has reported 68 deaths.
One NHS area in Birmingham has also recorded the highest number of triages in the country, with 44,000 calls and online contacts resulting in individuals being told that their symptoms were in keeping with Covid-19. However, the city has not recorded the most coronavirus triages when population size is taken into account.
The reasons behind the high number of deaths and confirmed cases in the Midlands are not clear. Birmingham is the country’s second biggest city by population – with 1.1 million residents – so a high number of cases is not unexpected. Some academics have suggested the region’s industrial past, combined with high levels of smoking, could be a cause.
The Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood said religious backgounds could also be playing a part and that elderly Muslim and Sikh people in the region were struggling to adhere to government guidelines on social distancing.
Public Health England is believed to be examining transmission patterns to see if anything unusual is happening in the Midlands but it could be weeks or months before that analysis becomes clear.
Additional reporting: Dan Sabbagh and Nazia Parveen