Converting the ExCeL London into a pop-up hospital to treat the country’s sick during the coronavirus outbreak is a huge logistical operation – but one the military is prepared for, a retired British general has said.

Soldiers in fatigues were spotted at the exhibition and conference centre’s loading bays in east London’s former Royal Victoria Docks site on Wednesday morning, though it is understood the military’s involvement is limited at the moment.

A number of large vans and forklift trucks were also seen going onto the site.

A member of the armed forces inside centre on Wednesday (PA)

There was little other sign of the mammoth transformation being under way as onlookers stopped by the ExCeL ahead of the hospital treating its first patients from next week.

Major General Timothy Cross, who ran Nato’s emergency relief operation in Kosovo and Macedonia in the 1990s, said it was a “big process” to create a field hospital, but said the military was used to it.

Members of the military are part of the Covid-19 support force which will next week open and run the NHS Nightingale hospital, with capacity to treat 4,000 coronavirus patients across two super wards.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Maj Gen Cross said: “What you’ve got in the ExCeL centre is a large, open space with power, lighting, water, sanitation, good accessibility but also obviously the ability to isolate.

“That’s the sort of thing one’s looking for deploying on operations in various places around the world.

“It’s a big process, but there’s a process for setting it all up.”

The NEC in Birmingham said it also “stands ready” and is “well equipped” to become a temporary hospital after reports suggested the site was another location being considered by the Government.

There are currently three regular medical field hospitals across England, where military personnel work alongside NHS staff.

These are at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot, Strensall in North Yorkshire, and Fort Blockhouse in Gosport.