At the beginning of the 19th century advances in medicine lead to the establishment of specialist fever or isolation hospitals to treat patients with infectious diseases – such as scarlet fever and smallpox. Early examples in England being the Liverpool Fever Hospital (1801) and the London Fever Hospital (1802). Such hospitals became common in England when laws were enacted requiring the notification of infectious diseases by public health officials.
The Catherine-de-Barnes Isolation Hospital was established in 1907 near Solihull in the West Midlands. It stayed operational into the 1980s – becoming the last in service when the six other remaining NHS isolation hospitals were closed down in 1981. But then in 1987 even this hospital was closed, fumigated and sold for luxury housing. An event that ended almost 200 years of putting patients with highly-contagious diseases in dedicated hospitals.
Back then it was thought that we would never need isolation hospitals again. All the world health challenges were either under control or far away.
But in 2020 all the rules changed – to the extent that this year has already seen the Covid worldwide toll reach some 38 million infections and around 1,086,000 known deaths – over 43,000 of them in the UK.
Early in the outbreak the UK government raced to establish seven temporary hospitals for Covid patients – with no expense spared. A move that could have re-established the isolation model that had worked in the past.
Instead the approach has been to free-up space in existing hospitals so that infectious Covid patients could share resources – and viruses – with those too sick to be included in the bed-freeing-up strategy. The results of which were death sentences for care home residents, a lack of resources for other serious conditions, cancellations of elective surgery and a reluctance within the general population to go anywhere near a hospital.
According to the Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago NHS chiefs had already been urged to assign all Covid patients to isolation hospitals in order to curb the spread of the virus, but the scientists involved were told that the move – though adopted in other countries and used effectively here before – was “too difficult” for the current NHS to achieve!
So we are now facing growing numbers of cases being handled in a repeat of the same approach that caused so many problems before. While we have new, purpose-built hospitals sitting empty and unused since June …
The front line NHS staff have been working very hard – but the ability of their leadership seems to have really gone downhill relative to other countries and those 19th century pioneers.
The phrase lions lead by donkeys comes to mind …