TELEVISION personalities, sporting legends and a member of the royal family are among those paying tribute as the region's first Nightingale Hospital near Sunderland opens.

This morning, Ant and Dec, Steph McGovern, Alan Shearer, Ben Stokes and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex paid their tributes as the official opening ceremony got underway.

The Nightingale Hospital North East, located near Nissan in Washington, has taken just three weeks to convert from an empty warehouse into a field hospital for up to 460 coronavirus patients.

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A monumental challenge, more than 300 workers have been seen working round-the-clock in order to finish the site - which is hoped will never actually need to be used.

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It is being run by the Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust 

In a video that beamed into the opening ceremony, Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly paid tribute to the hard work that had gone into fitting out the hospital.

Paying tribute, Dec said: "Thank you, even though we're here officially open the hospital the best case scenario is that it isn't needed.

"The amazing hospitals and the staff in the NHS in the North-East have been pulling out all the stops to cope in these most difficult times and we hope and pray that, thanks to everybody staying at home and keeping safe distances and washing their hands, that we will keep the dreadful effect of this virus to a minimum."

His TV partner, Ant said: "Even if it isn't needed, it's been a magnificent feat to pull this together and the speed of the transformation will be an enduring symbol of what the great people of this area are capable of.

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More than 80,000 construction hours have been clocked up

"It's an honour to follow in the footsteps of Captain Tom Moore and be part of opening one of these incredible hospitals, Captain Tom Moore a remarkable centenarian, whose raised so much money for NHS charities. What a hero."

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The hospital has been into a number of general wards and Intensive Care

Steph McGovern, from Middlesbrough, said: "The fact you are going out there and looking after everyone in this time, which is just mad, and putting others first, before yourself - you are amazing."

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The Intensive Care Unit at the new hospital

The theme Local Hero, played at St James' Park before Newcastle United matches, then backed a montage of tributes from personalities, including Vera star Brenda Blethyn, athlete Brendan Foster and soap actress Denise Welsh.

Praising the NHS staff, military, contractors and volunteers, who helped convert the warehouse into the hospital, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "Social distancing means I have to beam this message from afar, but I am very much with you in spirit and throughout this crisis.

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Dame Jackie Daniel, Chief Executive of Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (front centre), listens to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock appearing via video Picture: PA

"Our core goal has been to make sure we flatten the curve and ensure the NHS always has the capacity to offer the best possible care for anyone that needs it.

"Creating these Nightingale Hospitals in a matter of weeks, the Nightingale Hospital North East is the latest addition to that family in Sunderland, up to 460 extra critical care beds put together in around three weeks."

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Mr Hancock, who said the hospital can be adapted to meet changing clinical needs, said: "Of course we all hope these extra beds will not have to be used but I know you've built this facility in a way that means we can adapt the hospital, to changing clinical needs, as work through the emergency and into the recovery phase continues.

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"I pay tribute to everyone who has stepped up when it mattered and joined the national effort to defeat coronavirus, the clinicians, but also the managers, the planners, the construction workers who donated supplies and expertise, the engineers, the electricians, the caterers and others, you are the best amongst us, the whole country owes you an enormous debt."

After the ceremony, Martin Wilson, executive lead for Nightingale Hospital North East and Chief Operating Officer at the trust, said: "It has taken a real sense of common purpose, there has been a national crisis that we all needed to step up to, we've had staff working 24 hours a day, seven days a week for just over a month to make a 460-bed hospital.

"We designed this hospital to be really flexible so that we can respond to whatever the NHS needs us to do to support the hospitals right across the region.

"It's really encouraging to see the impact social distancing has had with reductions in the number of patients in hospital but we have to be prepared that might not continue and we might see additional pressures later in the year.

"This hospital will be ready, on stand-by, that if we do need to open for patients, we can do that with less than a couple of weeks' notice."

Further coronavirus-related stories from The Northern Echo