A string of field hospitals is being rapidly built in south Wales as doctors prepare for an “onslaught” of Covid-19 cases.
The south-east of Wales has been the country’s hotspot so far, with intensive care under such pressure that patients are being cared for in operating theatres.
The number of Covid-19 cases in and around Cardiff is rising sharply and health chiefs are so concerned farther west in the Swansea Bay area that they are building two field hospitals there at a sports academy and a film studio complex.
The chief executive of NHS Wales, Andrew Goodall, said on Thursday that an extra 6,000 beds were being prepared in Wales, in effect doubling the normal capacity.
About 2,000 of these beds will be at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff Bay, where the army is working. Another 1,300 will be set up at the two sites in Swansea Bay and 350 at a rugby stadium in Llanelli, south-west Wales. One 350-bed facility is being built in Llandudno, north Wales.
Goodall said: “We expect the pressure on our healthcare system to be significant. We’ve never taken such actions before and they are a necessary response to ensure that we care for our patients and for our communities.”
The largest rise in Welsh confirmed cases announced on Thursday was again in the Aneurin Bevan University health board area, which covers the city of Newport and the Gwent valleys. It accounts for about a third of cases in Wales. The Cardiff and Vale area has recorded the second highest number of cases, followed by Swansea Bay.
Welsh ministers believe the virus is tracking east to west and have suggested the proximity of Newport to the border with England is one of the reasons it has been so badly hit.
Dr Martin Bevan, the unit medical director at the Neath Port Talbot hospital, said it had increased the number of beds within the hospital as well as preparing to care for patients in the field hospitals.
He said: “Mainly it’s been expansion of our bed capacity ready for the onslaught. It does seem to be progressing along the M4.”
A particular concern in Neath Port Talbot is that it serves a relatively old and frail population. “Our age profile is higher, deprivation is higher, comorbidity is higher,” said Bevan. “Everything that could be worse is worse in the Neath Port Talbot area.”
At the Llandarcy Academy of Sport in Neath, workers were laying a wooden floor over an indoor artificial pitch in an arena nicknamed The Barn that is used by the Ospreys professional rugby team for training. They were also installing a new heating system.
Tracy Myhill, the chief executive of Swansea Bay University health board, said she was proud of the effort by a string of partners to build the field hospital. “There is a real can-do attitude being demonstrated, and people are determined to do everything possible to safeguard our population,” she said.
Asked why no field hospitals were being created in the south-east, a Welsh government spokesperson said: “As well as its two acute hospitals, the health board is bringing forward the opening of the new £350m Grange University hospital, which will make an extra 350 beds available. We are making £10m available to bring the new hospital online. Action is also under way to substantially increase capacity at other sites in the region.”
Another problem the NHS in Wales faces is the number of staff off sick – currently running at about 10%, double the average for this time of year. NHS chiefs are ready to quickly move staff around to make sure they are where they are most needed.