The government's launched a fair few disastrous projects over the past few months, including the Track and Trace app, the acquisition of PPE and the contact tracers left twiddling their thumbs. But arguably the biggest failure, and simultaneously the greatest success, is the construction of NHS Nightingale Hospitals. These were opened in record time and provided a rare PR boost for the government during the peak of the pandemic, but they also lacked trained staff and, more importantly, patients. The Nightingales in Birmingham, Bristol and Harrogate admitted no patients whatsoever, while the flagship at ExCel took in only 41. An utter waste of resources, but also a key insurance policy that thankfully was never needed.
London's Nightingale Hospital has been closed since the first week of May. The digital arch at the Western Entrance is still there, but its white NHS signage has been switched off leaving a foreboding black ziggurat in situ. A poster beside the door urges visitors not to ask staff about volunteering and to go away and check the website instead. A couple of security guards are seated at a table just inside, just in case. The whole of ExCel is essentially dark, there being nobody to treat and no events booked until Grand Designs Live at the end of August, if they're lucky.
A few NHS flags still flutter above the piazza. And a sign points down a ramp towards a pair of bespoke NHS Nightingale bus stops.
Launching a new hospital is a massive logistical enterprise, and one of the questions that needs answering is 'how will staff get here?' Conveniently two DLR stations are located immediately alongside, but travelling by train isn't an option for everyone so plans were also made for those arriving by car. The Greater London Authority stepped in and offered the SilvertownQuays site as a temporary parking area - that's the long-demolished zone around Millennium Mills on the opposite side of the Royal Victoria Dock. A temporary surface was laid providing space for at least 2000 vehicles, just in case, and then TfL and Stagecoach laid on a 24-hour park and ride service.
You can find out more about these bus services on the bespoke website nightingale.tfl.gov.uk, even though they haven't been running for well over a month. Route 1 linked the Silvertown South Car Park to ExCel, saving a long hike over a lofty footbridge, while route 4 connected the Millennium Mill Car Park (until it swiftly became apparent this wasn't going to be needed). Meanwhile routes 2 and 3 ran from the western side of ExCel to two hotels on the east side, because a lot of the hard-working Nightingale staff weren't intending to go home to sleep. Route 3 to the Marriott Moxy lasted longest, while route 2 to the Doubletree Hilton folded within a week.
The two ExCel bus stops are located in what's normally the coach & taxi drop off loop, because no coaches or taxis needed it at the time. TfL pulled out the stops to add proper bus stops with proper bus shelters, one labelled A and one labelled B to make sure nurses knew which was which. They've even got their own pages on the TfL website, despite no longer being served. Both bus shelters have their names written on the end, just as the design manual dictates. They also have 2m spacing circles painted on the floor, despite waiting at a bus stop not necessarily being the riskiest part of a nurse's day.
Behind Bus Stop B is a temporary marquee erected to house a mini Tesco supermarket. Even NHS staff needed somewhere to buy things, maybe even grab lunch, when all of ExCel's usual catering outlets were closed down. The store's no longer open, but an adjacent lamppost has a retrospective planning notice attached to it, plus a request to use the warehouse unit alongside should the facility ever be restored. A sign on the side of the marquee reads This store is now closed. We'll be back if you need us, which is a particularly sobering thought.
It feels odd walking around a deserted bus terminus, especially one which two months ago would have been anything but. It's even odder seeing that someone from TfL has come back to a disused bus stop and put up posters saying You must wear a face covering on public transport and Avoid public transport where possible. It is particularly easy to avoid public transport when there isn't any.
Speaking of avoidable transport, the neighbouring Dangleway has just released its weekly ridership figures for the lockdown period. In normal times it'd be carrying around 25,000 passengers a week.
March's totals were dragged down by the annual maintenance closure and then lockdown the following week. Since reopening in late May passenger numbers continue to be remarkably low, especially given that travelling in your own personal bubble makes this TfL's safest form of transport. But the really interesting number is that tiny blip in April.
After the NHS Nightingale Hospital opened, the O2 in North Greenwich offered its services as a location for staff training. The Dangleway was duly started up again to allow NHS staff to cross the river... but it seems hardly anyone availed themselves of the opportunity. 169 passengers a week is an extraordinarily low total, the equivalent of barely one passenger an hour, so it's no wonder the service was turned off again the following week. I suspect the 24-hour shuttle bus service wasn't terribly well used either. An enormous failure, and simultaneously a brilliant success.