IT felt like a war zone during the pandemic as doctors and nurses battled to save the sick and dying being rushed in for treatment in what was once a Covid hotspot.
Hospitals around the country are still feeling the strain, and new figures released this week have shown that by October there were 7.2million people waiting for surgery.
And on Thursday, the nurses’ strike could see up to 15,000 operations cancelled when 100,000 nurses are expected to take action at 76 hospitals and NHS organisations.
But one hospital has bucked the trend. Croydon University Hospital in South London has no backlog and now carries out 300 operations a week, an 11 per cent rise on the 270 it conducted before the pandemic.
A major restructuring at the height of Covid, which created a hospital within a hospital, was such a success that they have kept it even after the pandemic.
When The Sun on Sunday visited this week, one patient, mum-of-four Lilian Abemere, 41, described it as a “five-star hospital”.
She said: “I imagine it’s similar to going private. Even the food is good. The treatment and the attention I’ve been given here is something I never expected.”
Staff there have cared for more than 30,000 patients needing surgery since July 2020.
This includes more than 3,000 referred by neighbouring hospitals to reduce waits for planned care or treatment.
The hospital is in the top five Trusts nationally for referral to treatment times, as of September.
In line with NHS expected standards, the vast majority of patients — 80.6 per cent — are seen within 18 weeks.
And Croydon has no patients waiting longer than 78 weeks for treatment, while around the country a wait can be more than two years.
Their staff will not join the nurses going on strike over pay across the country later this month.
Senior surgeon Stella Vig told us: “Covid has been awful, but it has given us opportunities in that we are just so much more efficient now. I would never go back to the way it was before.”
The pandemic caused paralysis in the health service, with more Covid patients flooding into hospitals than staff could cope with.
Operations including life-saving cancer treatments were cancelled or delayed.
And the backlog is still having a knock-on effect, with the number on the NHS waiting list leaping by 100,000 in the past month alone.
Croydon was able to return to normal by the main building, on a 19-acre site in Thornton Heath, being split in two.
This created a separation between the theatres, or operating rooms, used for elective, pre-planned surgeries from those used for everything else.
The upper floor became a hospital within a hospital, with staff and patients rigorously tested for Covid — undergoing PCR tests and having their temperature checked — before they were allowed inside.
Only 20 patients have tested positive for Covid in the restricted access hospital since July 2020.
NHS executives visited in August to see if the new model can be rolled out across the UK and PM Rishi Sunak spoke to staff in October.
He later told The Sun on Sunday: “Tackling the NHS Covid backlog is one of my top priorities and last month I saw first-hand how Croydon Hospital are leading the way . . . I want their success to be a blueprint for the entire NHS.”
Stella said: “As a surgeon, I can come in and get on with my job. I would never go back to the way it was.
“I used to start my theatre list and there are no beds. I would go downstairs, do a ward run of my patients and find two that I could persuade to go home so I could start my theatre list upstairs.
“Then I would start my list late and everyone would have to work until late, around 7.30pm, so we could finish. And that’s not easy when you have childcare to pay for.
“As you walk down the corridor now, you see how peaceful and calm it is because this is the elective centre and you only come in if you are having an operation.”
Stella admits the height of Covid was terrifying.
She told us: “In March 2020, almost two thirds of our beds were filled with Covid patients.
“The Intensive Care Unit was overwhelmed. It was harrowing. We were worrying about getting Covid or our friends and family getting it.
“Colleagues moved out of home because they had vulnerable relatives and stayed in a hotel across the road for three months.
“I remember one night leaving work and seeing people out clapping for the first time. I cried all the way home.
“But we had people that had not been able to have vital surgery for six months, so we needed to crack on.
“At first, we came up with lots of harebrained ideas that never would have worked.
“The original conversation was to have a surgery hub in a different hospital. But a lot of people in Croydon can’t afford to travel.
“So we decided to put in a new door and create a separate hospital on the second floor, with strict protocols about testing.
“Within eight weeks we were back to doing what we are used to doing, while the rest of the country was at a standstill.
“We got permission to restructure at the end of May 2020 and in July we were live.
“With the reconfiguration, we’ve now got four emergency centre theatres downstairs.
“We only have nine theatres for elective surgery now, two fewer than before, but we are performing more operations, which is a credit to this team.”
Clinical lead practitioner Jijeesh Marotikunnath added: “The hospital felt like a war zone during the pandemic. Death became common and people were panicking.”
“One day we would be treating a patient and the next they would die — and we didn’t understand why they were dying so fast.
“There was a two-million waiting list across the country that kept going up. We were a Covid hotspot as Croydon had so many cases, but we knew we had to clear the backlog.”
The scene today is remarkably different and a Sun on Sunday reporter saw the tranquil atmosphere across the clean wards of the restricted access zone.
As Covid numbers subside and testing rules are eased, there are no plans to go back to the old system.
Senior nurse Talitha McDonald is one of those who will not be striking.
She said: Our staff will come in during the rail and bus strikes, if they have to walk they will walk to work. During the pandemic it was the same.
“You want to look after patients and do your best. That’s what you sign up for, to look after people.”