The NHS is preparing for a potential wave of hospital admissions from the Covid Omicron wave, setting up new Nightingale "surge hubs" at hospitals across England.
It comes as a health boss said the NHS was going on a "war footing" in readiness.
Work on eight hubs, each with a capacity of around 100 patients, is set to begin as early as this week while further sites could be identified to add a further 4,000 "super surge" beds at a later date.
Hospitals are already being forced to use hotels, hospices and care homes to safely discharge as many people who are medically fit to leave as possible – freeing up beds for those who need them most.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
On Wednesday, the government once again repeated its message to people to get their booster jab to protect against the variant. The prime minister warned up to 90% of coronavirus patients in intensive care have not had a Covid-19 booster vaccine.
Where will the Nightingale surge hubs be set up?The facilities will be set up at:
Royal Preston hospital
St James' University Hospital in Leeds
Lister Hospital in Stevenage
St George's Hospital in London
The William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent
North Bristol Hospital
Solihull Hospital, University Hospitals Birmingham
University Hospitals Leicester.
How will the Nightingale surge hubs work?
The new Nightingale facilities – manned by a mix of hospital consultants, nurses, and other clinical and non-clinical staff – are designed to take patients who, although not fit for discharge, need minimal support and monitoring while they recover from illness.
NHS Trusts have also been tasked with identifying places, such as gyms and education centres along with other sites, which could be converted to accommodate up to 4,000 "super surge" – roughly four times the number at a typical large district hospital.
The government has insisted the Nightingale hospitals built during the first wave of Covid in March 2020 were a success story of the pandemic - but they were at the time criticised with concerns they stood empty and did not have enough staff.
What other measures is the NHS taking to prepare for a potential wave?
An NHS national deal with Hospice UK will also see up to 4,800 people a day who need ongoing monitoring, but do not need to be in hospital, receive support in either in a hospice bed or through Hospice@Home teams.
The NHS is also ramping up the use of virtual wards, where patients get monitoring technology and regular check-ins with clinicians
GPs also have access to up to 250,000 pulse oximeters – devices that can read blood-oxygen levels by scanning a finger tip – so that Covid-19 positive patients can monitor their own blood oxygen levels at home ensuring only those who need to be are admitted to hospital.
What's been said about the new hubs?
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: "Given the high level of Covid-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing.
"We do not yet know exactly how many of those who catch the virus will need hospital treatment, but given the number of infections we cannot wait to find out before we act and so work is beginning from today to ensure these facilities are in place.
"We hoped never to have to use the original Nightingales and I hope we never to have to use these new hubs."
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid said the hubs were a back-up plan.
"We hope the Nightingale surge hubs at hospitals will not have to be used but it is absolutely right that we prepare for all scenarios and increase capacity," he said.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers – the membership organisation for NHS trusts in England, said: "Building on lessons learnt from earlier in the pandemic, trusts are identifying extra capacity on existing hospital sites that could be turned into super surge capacity should it be required.
"Trust leaders hope this back up insurance policy will never be needed, as with the original Nightingales. But it must be the right ‘no regrets later’ move to make these preparations now.
"Given the other pressures on the NHS and the current level of staff absences, staffing this capacity would be a major challenge. But co-location on existing hospital sites maximises the NHS’s ability to meet that challenge.
"We also need to recognise that this will add further stretch to an already hard pressed NHS."
What's the Covid situation across the UK?
The move comes as the UK reached record numbers of daily reported Covid cases once again on Wednesday, as 183,037 new coronavirus cases were recorded.
The total includes reported figures for Northern Ireland covering a five-day period, which although inflated the figure, it would still have been a record with England and Scotland seeing record high cases in the 24 hours to 9am on Wednesday.