Could modular buildings solve NHS capacity issues in 2021?

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Alan Wilson, managing director of ModuleCo Healthcare, discusses what offsite construction has done to support the NHS through Covid-19 pandemic and where we go from here

It’s no secret that Covid-19 has placed our NHS under immense strain as it battles to cope with mounting cases of the virus. With rising numbers of infected patients being recorded at the start of 2021, alongside a backlog of delayed procedures from last year, the next 12 months are likely to see our NHS face continued challenges.

With such limited capacity, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for Modern Methods of Construction, and alternative and innovative solutions could be sought by NHS Trusts to help healthcare professionals on the front-line continue delivering their vital work. To achieve this, collaboration with the private sector will be key.

Offsite construction of modular buildings could be one of the solutions required to help the NHS get through the next 12 months, largely due to the speed and cost efficiencies it can offer. The provision of scalable, fully compliant modular healthcare facilities, designed, built and installed by experienced industry experts, could go a long way in solving the current capacity crisis.

Responding to the NHS capacity crisis

A report from the British Medical Journal from early December 2020 indicates that the backlog for routine operations caused by the coronavirus pandemic could well be felt for ‘years to come’.

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Statistics also show that around 160,000 people have waited more than 52 weeks to receive treatment. Already, a lot will need to be done to reduce this to the existing target of an 18-week waiting period for non-elective care.

While the backlog of operations alone is cause for concern, we must also note that the NHS has been tasked with the most ambitious vaccine roll out in the history of our time. With the government’s goal of ensuring the first wave of vaccinations for priority groups is complete by Easter, there’s no doubt that this will further impact the backlog.

Where NHS Trusts require a cost-effective, scalable solution that can also help them maintain productivity during these difficult times, modular construction can help, both in the interim and as a longer-term option. By investing in these high-specification buildings, NHS Trusts will put themselves in a better place for handling mounting pressures.  

Offsite construction in a challenging work landscape

The guidelines around health and safety during the pandemic have caused many industries, including construction, to experience disruption in the completion of project work, because of the need to ensure social distancing can be facilitated.

Offsite construction was already prepared for social distancing measures, long before they became mandated, because site presence is so minimal. Modules are designed, developed and quality inspected in a controlled factory environment, where compliance with government guidance can be effectively maintained.

Limited on-site activity also ensures minimal disruption to the working hospital, allowing healthcare staff to continue working without compromising patient care. Project times are significantly reduced compared to traditional construction (up to 50%), meaning the facilities can be patient-ready in a matter of weeks.

Budget considerations

In 2020, the Department for Health and Social Care allocated the NHS £50bn of extra funding in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is important to note however, that this was largely used to fund PPE for health and social care workers, the Track and Trace system and to improve patient discharge processes.

For the year financial 2021/22, the budget allocated to the NHS will be larger than usual with £20.9bn allocated to support our health service through the pandemic. However, a substantial share of this sum will be non-recurrent and will likely not be maintained when the pandemic comes to an end.

Taking this into account, NHS Trusts nationwide will have little to no further budget to support finding additional capacity to cope with mounting pressures that will postdate the pandemic.

An added benefit of offsite, modular construction is that many companies provide Hire or Managed Service Agreements, amalgamating the cost of a facility into a monthly rental, taking into account the costs of not just the building, but also the groundworks, clinical equipment and maintenance.

This option would relieve the pressure on hospitals to find the capital outlay upfront, offering a more manageable financial commitment. The added incentive for a Managed Service Agreement allows NHS trusts to concentrate on providing its high standard of care while also having peace of mind that the facility is being managed by a third-party experienced provider.

Sustainable and scalable modular building facilities

The pandemic has taught us that we cannot predict the pressures that our health service may face, which means that any solutions moving forward would benefit from being both scalable and adaptable.

Modular healthcare facilities can be added as an extension to a current hospital estate, thus expanding existing capacity. These buildings can then be extended further or even relocated to other sites, depending on an NHS Trust’s needs.

2021 should also see sustainability agendas pushed forward, particularly following the net-zero commitments made by the NHS. Modular facilities are reusable and relocatable, and when moving units to a new site, only 10% of new materials are required to facilitate this.

Environmentally friendly additions such as PV panels or alternate heat sources can also be installed efficiently within the factory, reducing the need to compromise on these elements of the project.

Construction within controlled factory conditions means that delays and quality issues caused by external factors such as weather do not affect modular construction projects.

Learning from the past

Offsite construction was useful to the NHS 20 years ago, when the Labour government pledged to bring hospital waiting times down to 18 weeks – a standard we maintain to this day. In the current climate, we see our health service facing similar, if not more significant pressures.

The NHS needs a comprehensive solution to increase capacity with fully compliant facilities rolled out across the board, both in terms of NHS Technical specifications and the required fire and acoustic performance of hospital buildings.

Speed of construction and certainty of budget is another important consideration as NHS Trusts need an affordable solution that can be implemented within a tight timeframe. Modular construction delivers on both of these fronts, particularly with flexible hire and managed service options.

The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the need for MMC and it’s positive to see greater consideration of offsite construction. We hope and anticipate that the upward trend in offsite construction being utilised will continue into 2021, with the public sector recognising the numerous benefits it brings.

 

 

Alan Wilson

Managing director

ModuleCo Healthcare

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