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London's field hospital to be used amid acute COVID pressure

Britain's National Health Service will from next week employ a little-used field hospital specially built at a huge exhibition center in east London in the early days of the pandemic last spring.

NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens said Thursday that the pressures facing hospitals in London and the southeast of England are so acute that the Nightingale hospital at the ExCel London will be opened next week to inpatients. A few hundred beds for non-COVID patients are expected to be available at first.

“The entirety of the health service in London is mobilizing to do everything it possibly can but the infections, the rate of growth in admissions, that is what collectively the country has got to get under control," he said.

Fountains in Trafalgar Square are lit with blue lights to show support for the NHS in London, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Buildings across the country are being lit with blue lights to thank the work by NHS staff in caring for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP PhotoKirsty Wigglesworth)

The hospital, which will also be a vaccination hub, was one of several built in the spring to help during the pandemic. They were named after Florence Nightingale, widely considered to be the founder of modern nursing. In the event, they were barely used and were mothballed for use potentially during further waves of the pandemic.

Stevens said the health service is in the midst of an “incredibly serious situation” with more than 50% more coronavirus inpatients in hospitals across England than April's peak. All this is happening when the NHS is at its busiest because of winter-related ailments.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government has faced criticism for not locking down England earlier — during the Christmas holiday season — given a spike in infections largely blamed on a new variant of the virus around the capital and the southeast of England. The lockdown came into effect on Tuesday, more than two weeks after scientists warned the new variant was potentially 70% more contagious.

Fountains in Trafalgar Square are lit with blue lights to show support for the NHS in London, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Buildings across the country are being lit with blue lights to thank the work by NHS staff in caring for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP PhotoKirsty Wigglesworth)

The U.K. is recording virus-related deaths on a par with some of the worst days of the pandemic. On Thursday, government figures showed that another 1,162 people were reported to have died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus. That's just shy of the record high of 1,224 deaths on April 21.

The U.K.‘s total virus-related death toll is now 78,508. According to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the U.K. is again Europe’s worst-hit nation in terms of total COVID-related deaths.

Though the number of new cases fell to 52,618 from the previous day’s record of 62,322, the seven-day average is running around three times higher than a month ago. Given the lags involved, the U.K. could well face many more days of very high daily virus-related deaths.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus, COVID-19, in Downing Street, London, Thursday Jan. 7, 2021. (Tolga AkmenPool via AP)

Johnson said the U.K.'s likely virus-related death toll will be “tragically” high but will ultimately depend on factors such as the speed of the rollout of vaccines and people's adherence to the lockdown.

The U.K. is further along the vaccine path than others, having already approved two for use. Nearly 1.5 million people, mainly over the age of 80, have already received a first dose of vaccine. The government is aiming to provide a first dose to around 13 million people by mid-February, who would account for around 85% of those deemed to be most at-risk from dying from COVID-19.

People across the U.K. were encouraged to “Clap for Heroes” on Thursday evening. In the first weeks of the pandemic, the weekly “Clap for Carers” was a unifying ritual.

Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Health Service in England, speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus, COVID-19, in Downing Street, London, Thursday Jan. 7, 2021. (Tolga AkmenPool via AP)

Its return, albeit a rebranded one to also acknowledge other key workers such as delivery drivers and postal workers, has been met with a mixed response. Some NHS workers have asked people to just stay at home and not venture outside to clap.

Follow AP coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at:

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Brigadier Phil Prosser, Commander of the 101 Logistic Brigade speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus, COVID-19, in Downing Street, London, Thursday Jan. 7, 2021. (Tolga AkmenPool via AP)

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus, COVID-19, in Downing Street, London, Thursday Jan. 7, 2021. (Tolga AkmenPool via AP)

Fountains in Trafalgar Square are lit with blue lights to show support for the NHS in London, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Buildings across the country are being lit with blue lights to thank the work by NHS staff in caring for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP PhotoKirsty Wigglesworth)

Ellen Prosser, known as Nell, who is 100 years old, receives the OxfordAstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from Dr Nikki Kanani at the Sunrise Care Home in London, as the government continues to ramp up the vaccination program. (Kirsty O'ConnorPool Photo via AP)

Ellen Prosser, known as Nell, who is 100 years old, receives the OxfordAstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from Dr Nikki Kanani at the Sunrise Care Home in London, as the government continues to ramp up the vaccination program. (Kirsty O'ConnorPool Photo via AP)

In this handout photo provided by Pic PR, 104-year-old Joyce Birrell receives the PfizerBioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at Foxholes Care Home in Hertfordshire, England, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Joyce, who is a resident at the care home, became one of the oldest people to receive the coronavirus vaccine. (Pic PR via AP)

A view of a virtually empty Oxford Street, in London, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a new national lockdown for England which means people will only be able to leave their homes for limited reasons, with measures expected to stay in place until mid-February. (AP PhotoFrank Augstein)

A view of a virtually empty Regent Street in London, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a new national lockdown for England which means people will only be able to leave their homes for limited reasons, with measures expected to stay in place until mid-February. (AP PhotoFrank Augstein)

A nurse works with a patient inside the Intensive Care Unit at St George's Hospital in London, where the number of intensive care beds for the critically sick has had to be increased from 60 to 120, the vast majority of which are for coronavirus patients, Wednesday Jan. 6, 2021. The number of coronavirus cases being treated in hospital is continuing to rise across the country. (Victoria JonesPA via AP)

A nurse works with a patient inside the Intensive Care Unit at St George's Hospital in London, where the number of intensive care beds for the critically sick has had to be increased from 60 to 120, the vast majority of which are for coronavirus patients, Wednesday Jan. 6, 2021. The number of coronavirus cases being treated in hospital is continuing to rise across the country. (Victoria JonesPA via AP)

A vial of the OxfordAstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is held for photographer at Pentlands Medical Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland, Thursday Jan. 7, 2021. The British government continues to increase locations administering the COVID-19 vaccination with the jab being offered to over 90-year olds and vulnerable patients. (Russell CheynePA via AP)