London buses turned into ambulances to ease Covid strain

Denis Campbell Health policy editor
·3 min read

NHS staff are preparing to transport patients using two London buses that have been converted into makeshift ambulances, in another sign of the strain Covid is putting on the capital’s health services.

Most of the seats on the single-decker buses have been removed so that each can carry four patients, in an attempt to relieve the intense pressure on hospitals and the London ambulance service.

Go-Ahead, the bus company which owns the vehicles, has loaned them to the NHS in the capital to help transfer patients, including to the reopened London Nightingale field hospital.

They will be staffed by doctors and nurses who work in the NHS, especially in intensive care, as well as volunteers from the St John Ambulance first aid charity.

Go-Ahead is also providing four drivers for the vehicles, which have been adapted so that vital medical equipment – including infusion pumps and monitors – can be used to keep patients stable and observe their condition. All have been vaccinated against coronavirus. Go-Ahead was inundated with offers from its drivers to help.

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The buses will also have oxygen onboard and will be able to give it to patients who need it, including those with Covid, through a facemask. The electric vehicles will be able to charge the equipment from their batteries.

The first patients are due to be moved in the buses in the next few days. Initially, they are likely to be patients from London hospitals who are being moved to the Nightingale at the ExCeL arena to receive “step-down” care before they are discharged. It reopened last week but, unlike in the first wave, is being used for less sick patients rather than those who are seriously ill with Covid.

It is thought to be the first time any part of the NHS has had to use specially adapted buses like this to move patients around. Personnel onboard will wear personal protective equipment.

The NHS staff on the buses will be doctors and nurses who work for the Specialist Retrieval and Intensive Care Transfer Service (Sprint), an NHS service which was set up in March, as the Covid pandemic struck, to move sick people between intensive care units at hospitals in south London to ensure none became overwhelmed.

Dedicated stops have been created outside King’s College and Guy’s hospitals in south London to ensure the buses can park and collect patients and have priority. The sides of the buses bear large stickers saying “NHS patient transport” and bearing the health service’s logo.

They will help the London ambulance service, which has been under serious pressure and struggled to answer the huge number of 999 calls it has been receiving since the capital once again became the centre of the lethal second wave of coronavirus around Christmas.

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They have had holes inserted in their floors to secure four ambulance stretcher trolleys on wheels made by a firm called Stryker and make sure they do not move around while the bus is in motion.

Patients who need it can be given help to breathe or intravenous medication during the journey.

The initiative has been arranged by Go-Ahead, Sprint and Transport for London.

The London Nightingale opened amid great fanfare in March and was originally intended to be a massive 4,000-bed Covid critical care unit. However, staffing proved problematic and in the first wave it only treated a few dozen patients. It is now being used to take up to 300 non-Covid patients who are close to discharge and is also acting as one of the NHS’s mass vaccination centres.

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