I walked past the ExCel Centre yesterday.
Here's an arresting image.
Rest assured it's not as bad as it looks.
These ambulances aren't transporting patients, they're empty.
And the Nightingale Hospital isn't open, let alone operational.
The ambulance front left is from the Driver Training Unit and the other four are part of the training session. London always needs ambulance drivers, and imminently a lot more than usual. I have no idea whether this particular course is the normal 22-week version, nor how close to completion it is. But a sign outside the Novotel did confirm it was just one of a number of cohorts currently undergoing training, and that the hotel car park was reserved for the trainees' vehicles.
The real surprise was how quiet the ExCel Centre seemed, and indeed how much it still looked like an exhibition centre. Back in the spring the entrance arch had Nightingale Hospital branding, but that was switched off when the facility was decommissioned at the start of May. Throughout the summer a row of NHS flags continued to flutter in the plaza outside and the posters saying Nightingale Hospital London remained. But a couple of months ago the owners reinstated their 'Welcome to ExCel London' brand and started playing digital adverts likely to appeal to global conference attendees. Even the arch now flashes up the word Welcome in a variety of foreign languages. I take this as the surest sign that nobody inside is on life support.
If further evidence were needed, the temporary Tesco hasn't reopened. A small store opened in a white marquee beneath the main entrance to serve hard-pressed staff back when they were needed. But it closed after only a few weeks, with a We'll be back if you need us sign on the exterior... which I fear may be soon. Alongside is the turning circle where TfL's special staff-only bus shuttles once terminated. The bus shelter has been mothballed since the spring, rather than removed, but a contractor's van was parked there yesterday so maybe it's being readied for fresh passengers.
Having read in the news that London's Nightingale Hospital has been "reactivated" ready to take patients, as well being due to open as a mass Covid vaccination hub, I was expecting to see more concrete evidence of preparatory action. But the quarter mile of dockside perimeter was almost dormant, bar a couple of staff waiting behind access doors and a pair of future employees with bicycles. Someone came out to greet them, confirming that yes this was where they'd need to come next week and yes the shift really did start at six in the morning.
As for the large eastern car park, its most significant feature is a fenced-off area filled with a film crew's caravans. That's because, in the absence of nurses and delegates, ExCel has been offering its million square feet of exhibition halls as a film studio and various high end dramas have grabbed the opportunity. But suddenly this week the far side of the car park is busy too, scattered with vehicles whose drivers are here to perform a variety of unspecified tasks. They could all be film-related, but the appearance of several vans belonging to Igloos (global solutions for temporary and permanent washrooms) suggests not.
One thing about ExCel is how successfully it shields whatever's going on within. Could be an arms fair, could be a romcom, could be a mass morgue serving several surrounding boroughs. But if you judge the level of activity by people's need to go in and out occasionally then the interior is not the hotbed recent news stories might have suggested. The service road alongside the DLR is silent, the platforms at Prince Regent station are quiet and ExCel's elevated eastern entrance is closed unless you're employed by security.
This tumbleweed vibe is preferable to what might be coming later in the month, if the NHS can get the staff, as the Nightingale becomes urgent overspill for hospitals overwhelmed elsewhere. But ExCel could also be a place of hope, a building to which Londoners flock for a jab that could collectively save us all. Our desire to get there might even give the Dangleway a genuine sense of purpose, rather than what I saw yesterday which was 40 consecutive empty pods. In the meantime subdued preparations are being made for whatever lies ahead, as a multi-purpose venue extends its remit.