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Caring for critically ill adults in paediatric intensive care units in England during the COVID-19 pandemic: planning, implementation and lessons for the future
  1. Ruchi Sinha1,
  2. Angela Aramburo2,
  3. Akash Deep3,
  4. Emma-Jane Bould4,
  5. Hannah L Buckley5,
  6. Elizabeth S Draper6,
  7. Richard Feltbower7,
  8. Rebecca Mitting1,
  9. Sarah Mahoney8,
  10. John Alexander9,
  11. Stephen Playfor10,
  12. Amy Chan-Dominy2,11,
  13. Simon Nadel1,
  14. Ganesh Suntharalingam12,13,
  15. James Fraser14,15,
  16. Padmanabhan Ramnarayan1,15,16
  1. 1 Department of Paediatric Intensive Care, Division of Women and Children’s Services, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, London, UK
  2. 2 Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK
  3. 3 Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK
  4. 4 Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, Barts Health NHS Trust, London, UK
  5. 5 PICANet, School of Medicine, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
  6. 6 Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
  7. 7 Division of Epidemiology, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
  8. 8 Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust, Liverpool, UK
  9. 9 Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, Stoke-on-Trent, UK
  10. 10 PICU, Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, Manchester, UK
  11. 11 Adult Intensive Care Unit, Royal Brompton Hospital, London, UK
  12. 12 Adult Intensive Care Unit, North West London Hospitals NHS Trust, Harrow, UK
  13. 13 Intensive Care Society, London, UK
  14. 14 Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, Bristol, UK
  15. 15 Paediatric Intensive Care Society, London, UK
  16. 16 Children's Acute Transport Service, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust and NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Padmanabhan Ramnarayan, Children's Acute Transport Service, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust, London WC1N 3JH, UK; p.ramnarayan{at}


Objective To describe the experience of paediatric intensive care units (PICUs) in England that repurposed their units, equipment and staff to care for critically ill adults during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Design Descriptive study.

Setting Seven PICUs in England.

Main outcome measures (1) Modelling using historical Paediatric Intensive Care Audit Network data; (2) space, staff, equipment, clinical care, communication and governance considerations during repurposing of PICUs; (3) characteristics, interventions and outcomes of adults cared for in repurposed PICUs.

Results Seven English PICUs, accounting for 137 beds, repurposed their space, staff and equipment to admit critically ill adults. Neighbouring PICUs increased their bed capacity to maintain overall bed numbers for children, which was informed by historical data modelling (median 280–307 PICU beds were required in England from March to June). A total of 145 adult patients (median age 50–62 years) were cared for in repurposed PICUs (1553 bed-days). The vast majority of patients had COVID-19 (109/145, 75%); the majority required invasive ventilation (91/109, 85%). Nearly, a third of patients (42/145, 29%) underwent a tracheostomy. Renal replacement therapy was provided in 20/145 (14%) patients. Twenty adults died in PICU (14%).

Conclusion In a rapid and unprecedented effort during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, seven PICUs in England were repurposed to care for adult patients. The success of this effort was underpinned by extensive local preparation, close collaboration with adult intensivists and careful national planning to safeguard paediatric critical care capacity.

  • epidemiology
  • microbiology

Data availability statement

All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information.

This article is made freely available for use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

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What is already known on this topic?

  • During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in England, there was a significant demand for adult critical care beds.

  • Surge critical care beds were created in theatres and recovery areas and respiratory wards, and in some parts of the country, in paediatric intensive care units (PICUs).

  • There is a lack of national data on the extent to which PICUs were transformed to manage adult patients and how critical care services for children were maintained nationally.

What this study adds?

  • Seven PICUs in England repurposed their space, equipment and staff to care for 145 critically ill adults during the first wave of the pandemic.

  • Modelling based on historic national clinical audit data was used to predict national demand for PICU beds to maintain adequate provision for critically ill children in other units.

  • Repurposed PICUs cared for nearly one in five adults needing critical care within their own hospitals.


On 11 March 2020, WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.1 Experience from China and Italy indicated that 98% of all infections were in adults, and at least 5% of infected adults required critical care admission. Only 2% of infections were in children, of whom just 1%–2% required paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission.2–5

National and international modelling, together with early clinical experience, indicated that the demand for adult intensive care unit (AICU) beds during the pandemic was likely to rapidly outstrip bed capacity several-fold.6–9 Increasing AICU surge capacity during pandemics and other mass-casualty disasters has been the subject of much discussion.10–12 Since there are far fewer critical care beds for children than for adults, the use of AICU beds for critically ill/injured children has been an important consideration in pandemic plans (including during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009), whereas the opposite scenario (utilisation of PICU beds for critically ill adults) has not featured heavily.13 14

In England, paediatric intensive care is a centralised, nationally commissioned service, comprising PICUs based in tertiary hospitals and associated specialist retrieval teams.15 Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 312 PICU beds in 22 hospitals (2.7 beds per 100 000 children aged <18 years), compared with 4123 AICU beds in over 150 hospitals (9 beds per 100 000 adults).16 17 English PICUs admit around 15 000 children each year, nearly 10 000 of them being unplanned admissions.18 Importantly, demand for PICU beds follows a seasonal pattern, with a 30% increase in unplanned respiratory admissions over winter.19 While many PICUs supported adult critical care expansion through loan of space and equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, single-centre reports from Europe and the USA describe how they repurposed their entire PICUs, including staff, to care for critically ill adults20 21; however, there is a dearth of national data on this topic.

The National Health Service declared a level 4 incident in early March 2020.22 Plans to rapidly increase AICU bed capacity were implemented initially by cancelling elective surgery, then creation of additional critical care beds outside AICU areas through stepwise escalation—high dependency units, operating theatres and recovery areas, followed by other acute wards and finally, the newly built Nightingale hospitals.23 24 Since surge planning occurred at a regional and individual hospital level, plans to use PICU beds to care for adult patients featured in some regions and not in others. In this article, we describe how seven PICUs in England repurposed their units, equipment and staff to look after adult patients during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic; how regional and national level planning maintained overall PICU bed capacity for critically ill children; the characteristics, interventions and outcomes of adult patients cared for in repurposed PICUs and lessons learnt for future waves of the pandemic.


National planning

Paediatric intensive care has a limited number of units configured in long-established ‘hub-and-spoke’ networks with dedicated transport teams.25 To support adult critical care demands on paediatric critical care, the UK Paediatric Intensive Care Society (PICS) coordinated national planning and support for all PICUs through: a) weekly web conferences for clinicians from individual PICUs to jointly discuss their bed capacity and regional surge arrangements, allowing for a ‘birds-eye’ view of national PICU capacity; and b) rapid national clinical guidance to cover various ‘hot’ topics relevant to these clinical teams.

Modelling PICU demand

If some PICUs were being repurposed to care for adults, plans for maintaining adequate capacity for critically ill children in England crucially depended on estimation of anticipated demand for PICU beds at a regional and national level. In late March 2020, we analysed routine audit data from the Paediatric Intensive Care Audit Network (PICANet) database, a high-quality clinical database to which all UK PICUs submit data, to estimate the average (and minimum) demand for PICU beds nationally and regionally in England from March through to June. Historical data from November 2018 to June 2019 were used for modelling. Since over 60% of PICU admissions are unplanned, and even planned admissions for major complex surgery (eg, congenital heart disease) cannot safely be postponed for longer than a few weeks, 500 scenarios were simulated for each month and region with 10% of planned admissions randomly removed without replacement. Summary statistics for the number of bed days estimated to be required (should 10% of planned workload be removed for each month in 2019–2020) were then calculated at regional level based on these simulated datasets.

Repurposing PICU

In line with recent guidance,26–28 the challenges for the repurposed units were broadly categorised into: space, staff, equipment, clinical care, communication and governance. Details regarding how PICUs were repurposed along these principles, as well as how they were adapted to local requirements, were collected from the individual units. Repurposed PICUs also collected data on the clinical characteristics, interventions performed and outcomes of adults cared for in their units, as well as numbers of children cared for at the same time (if any) and transfers out of children from their hospital to other PICUs. Summary data were pooled by the lead author from all units for descriptive analysis.


From 19 March to 2 June 2020, 13 national web conferences were organised by PICS, with representation from all PICUs in England. In anticipation of significant demand for adult critical care beds, PICS and their adult counterpart, the ICS, published a joint position statement in early March supporting the flexible use of PICU beds for specific cohorts of young adults.29 However, it became rapidly obvious that the majority of critically ill adults were older than 40 years, therefore significant redeployment of PICU staff and equipment to adult ICUs was needed to support critical care expansion.30

Data modelling

Figure 1 shows the seasonal demand for PICU beds in the UK, with the number of unplanned admissions lowest in summer, followed by a 20% rise in demand over winter. In table 1, the mean and median bed activity data for each region in the UK is summarised by month covering the period from November 2018 to June 2019. The median bed activity in the pandemic months (March–June) in England was estimated from historical data to be 280–307, with a minimum of 251 beds. These numbers accounted for the cancellation of planned surgery. The median bed activity in winter months was estimated to be a median of 310–338, with a minimum estimate of 266. The COVID-19 pandemic occurred during spring/summer months, when demand for unplanned admissions to PICU was nearly 20% lower than in winter months.

Figure 1

Seasonal pattern of unplanned admissions to paediatric intensive care units (PICUs) in England.

Table 1

Modelling predicted demand for paediatric intensive care beds in England using historical data from November 2018 through to June 2019

Repurposing PICUs

Seven PICUs in England admitted critically ill adults to their fully repurposed units. As shown in tables 2 and 3, they accounted for a total of 83 PICU and 54 high-dependency care beds prior to the pandemic. Staff redeployment affected almost all UK PICUs; however, the choices around whether to maintain familiarity (keeping the teams together in their usual environment), or to redeploy staff to help adult services, involved making complex decisions at a time of great stress, and these seven units chose to keep their teams together in their usual environment. In most cases, staff had never been trained to care for adults or had not looked after adults for many years.

Table 2

Prepandemic characteristics of seven repurposed PICUs in England

Table 3

Plans for expanding critical care capacity to look after adults using repurposed PICU space and staff

Considerations during repurposing included:

  1. Space: the re-organisation of the physical PICU space to identify ‘green’ and ‘red’ areas with donning and doffing facilities for personal protective equipment (PPE).

  2. Staffing (skills): the rapid credentialing of paediatric-trained staff to identify those with recent ICU experience, redeployment and training on the basics of management of critically ill adults (including those with COVID-19), via remote, face-to-face and simulated educational sessions.

  3. Staffing models: the overhaul of medical and nursing rotas to provide for additional layers of cover in the context of COVID-19 related illness and/or quarantine requirements. Some units needed to rapidly implement full shift, resident consultant rotas.

  4. Equipment: the re-stocking of storerooms with adult appropriate equipment such as renal replacement filters, endotracheal tubes, intravenous access catheters and pharmacy stores. Many units needed both adult and paediatric resuscitation and difficult airway trolleys that were easily distinguishable.

  5. Clinical care: the development of adult-specific clinical guidance, including bespoke checklists, quick guides and common drug doses. These were rapidly disseminated and frequently updated as new guidance emerged via critical care networks and the Intensive Care Society (ICS). Regular multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings with adult medical and critical care colleagues, pharmacists and allied healthcare professionals supported patient flow, clinical decision making and dealing with resource limitations. Task-specific teams were developed to streamline workload in ICU areas.31

  6. Communication: information and technology resources including bedside webcams, hand-held devices for point-of-care ultrasound and professional online collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams were used to aid communication with families and within clinical teams.

  7. Governance: a Joint Statement from Statutory Regulators of Heath and Care Professionals provided some reassurance to the paediatric nurses and doctors that working cooperatively with adult specialists and using the best available evidence in these challenging circumstances was acceptable to their respective regulatory bodies.32

Tables 4 and 5 summarise how the above challenges were approached by each PICU. Although all seven units broadly adopted similar processes within a short time frame to meet the challenges of accommodating adult patients, local factors also played an important role in determining how beds were configured. Some PICUs needed to ring-fence a few PICU beds for highly specialised paediatric services such as liver transplant and trauma/neurosurgery, and for children presenting to their own emergency department or those acutely deteriorating on the paediatric wards. Hence, in all but two units a small number of critically ill children were cared for alongside critically ill adults. PICU staff usually managed adult patients in close consultation with AICU teams, although frontline-staffing models varied.

Table 4

Logistics involved in repurposing seven PICUs to care for critically ill adults—space, staff and equipment

Table 5

Clinical care delivery in seven repurposed PICUs to care for critically ill adults

Table 6 shows the numbers of adult patients cared for by the seven PICUs. Overall, 145 critically ill adults were cared for in these PICUs, accounting for a total of 1553 bed-days. Notably, the six PICUs that were co-located with AICUs admitted nearly one out of five adults cared for in those hospitals. Overall mortality on PICU was 14%. Table 6 also shows how many children were cared for in the same period in these PICUs. One PICU retrieval team in London set up an additional team staffed by paediatric anaesthetists to undertake 12 interhospital transfers of adult COVID-19 patients during the peak of the surge.

Table 6

Characteristics, interventions and outcomes of patients admitted to the seven PICUs repurposed to care for adults

Other PICUs followed different models: stand-alone children’s hospitals increased their capacity to absorb critically ill children diverted from repurposed units, some PICUs relocated to other wards to give up their space and equipment for adults and others adopted a hybrid approach, admitting both paediatric and adult patients. PICU retrieval teams decanted existing paediatric inpatients from PICUs repurposed for adults, including those on advanced life support such as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, and over the ensuing weeks, functioned in a coordinated fashion to divert emergency admissions to ‘ring-fenced’ PICU beds in other units.


Many lessons were learnt by the PICU community in England as a result of this extraordinary healthcare response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This transformation into adult ICUs was based on well-described principles28 30 applied to local requirements, allowing a proportion of adult critical care demand to be met by PICU teams alone, either by repurposing entire PICUs or by maintaining a hybrid model where adults and children were cared for on the same unit. We found that paediatric teams can deliver excellent care to adults with outcomes comparable to adult ICUs as long as there is strong leadership and effective communication. These PICU teams were performing interventions such as adult cardiopulmonary resuscitation, treating unfamiliar conditions such as fast atrial fibrillation or pulmonary embolism, and prescribing unfamiliar medications. The physical size of the patients, as well as the fact that they needed to be proned for prolonged periods of time, also introduced new challenges.33 Extended lengths of stay and the slow pace of recovery in adults with COVID-19 were in stark contrast to the short length of stay seen in critically ill children in general (median length of PICU stay 3.2 days). Mortality in adults with COVID-19 was also much higher compared with the usual PICU patients (14% vs 5.1%).18 34 Supporting staff well-being in the face of these challenges was crucial in maintaining team morale and achieving optimal outcomes. Particularly challenging was looking after children as well as adults on the same unit, necessitating a frequent reset of mental models of care.

Our modelling demonstrated that compared with March/April, an additional 20%–25% PICU capacity is required in November/December to satisfy winter demand for emergency paediatric admissions in England. Plans for adult critical care expansion in case of future COVID-19 waves need to take this into account—each year, PICU’s ‘winter surge’ is managed by cancellation of elective complex surgery, ad hoc and temporary relaxation of PICS standards for staffing ratios,35 and redeployment of non-clinical staff to the frontline. Children are often transferred to distant units due to lack of regional PICU beds, an issue that is frequently highlighted in the press.36 37 Replicating the previous PICU response during further COVID-19 surges will be challenging during winter. In addition, since the majority of planned complex surgery in children cannot be postponed for long (eg, cardiac surgery), long-term outcome data are crucial to support the ethical and legal implications of denying children access to such surgery by using PICU beds for adult patients in future waves.

This unique experience has highlighted the need in future waves to maintain up-to-date records of staff training and credentials, mechanisms to swiftly develop and communicate guidance in the face of rapidly accumulating experience, systems for responsive rostering to adapt to changing demands, closer liaison between adult and paediatric ICU teams in general, adoption of techniques for positioning heavy patients, greater emphasis on delirium prevention and management and embedding well-being interventions into routine practice to support staff.

PICU staff recognised the challenges of working outside their normal practice with close cooperation with adult teams working to the best available evidence: this was feasible, safe and supported by regulatory bodies. Had children been predominantly more affected than adults, it is arguable whether transformation of AICUs would have been as rapidly achievable. The dedicated task-specific teams used were usually led by adult anaesthetists, some with little experience of managing critically ill children, highlighting the importance of shared training and professional development for the future.

The strengths of this study are the inclusion of all seven PICUs who repurposed their entire units (providing a national picture) and availability of detailed data on how the units were repurposed and the characteristics and outcomes of adults treated on these units. We were however limited by the unavailability of activity data from other PICUs during the same period to indicate the impact of these changes and outcome data for adults discharged from the PICUs to other areas (providing a lower mortality rate than expected from adult ICUs).


In an unprecedented transformative effort, seven PICU teams in England repurposed to manage critically ill adults in spring 2020 and contributed significantly to the national expansion effort for adult critical care. This effort was supported by national-level planning within the PICU community, ensuring that critically ill children continued to have access to PICU beds.

Data availability statement

All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information.

Ethics statements

Ethics approval

Since only the treating teams were involved in data collection, and only anonymised aggregated data were pooled for central analysis, ethics committee approval was not required.


The authors would like to thank Katherine Brown and Peter Davis (clinical input into PICANet data analysis), and all clinical staff on all PICUs in England who contributed data to PICANet and cared for critically ill adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. PICANet is commissioned by the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership (HQIP) as part of the National Clinical Audit and Patient Outcomes Programme (NCAPOP). HQIP is led by a consortium of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing and National Voices. Its aim is to promote quality improvement in patient outcomes, and in particular, to increase the impact that clinical audit, outcome review programmes and registries have on healthcare quality in England and Wales. HQIP holds the contract to commission, manage and develop the National Clinical Audit and Patient Outcomes Programme (NCAPOP), comprising around 40 projects covering care provided to people with a wide range of medical, surgical and mental health conditions. The programme is funded by NHS England, the Welsh Government and, with some individual projects, other devolved administrations and crown dependencies



  • Contributors Conception of study: RS, AA, AC-D and PR. Data analysis and modelling: HLB, ESD and RF. Data collection and analysis: RS, AA, AC-D, AD, E-JB, SP, SM, RM, SN and JA. Data interpretation: GS and JF. PR acts as guarantor for the data. All authors were involved in drafting the manuscript, and all authors approved the final submitted version.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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