COVID-19: Military Planners 'Working on 10 New UK Field Hospitals'

Siobhan Harris

March 26, 2020

The British military is helping the NHS during the pandemic. A 'Covid Support Force' of 20,000 personnel has been put at higher readiness and reserves have been placed on standby to support public services, most notably the NHS.

Armed forces personnel delivering PPE - MOD Crown Copyright

Further Field Hospitals

It's understood around 10 locations are being sought by NHS and military planners to set-up makeshift hospitals in the coming weeks. That's in addition to two huge wards at London's ExCel exhibition centre.

Health Minister Edward Argar told Sky News the NHS Nightingale Hospital, as the ExCel will be called, is the priority: "There will be 4000 beds there eventually, 500 on stream next week. Of course we'll be looking at how that works and to make sure that around the country there's sufficient capacity where it's needed. But our focus at the moment is getting that first one up and running."

Sky also quotes a Whitehall source saying that military planners are already examining more locations in support of the Department of Health and Social Care. However, the source said they would not be as large as the ExCel conversion. Soldiers in fatigues were spotted at the exhibition and conference centre's loading bays though it is understood the military's involvement is limited at the moment.

The Former head of the Armed Forces, Lord Richards, told Forces News: "This is a perfect task for the armed forces particularly the logicians, the engineers and those in the medical corps and so on, that do this as part of their operational role. It's doing a vital thing for the community as well."

Other Locations

The NEC near Birmingham is also a potential location for a temporary field hospital. Bosses at the venue, close to Birmingham Airport, have said they "stand ready" to help the NHS "with immediate effect" if the call comes from 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 Hampshire.

Delivering PPE

The British Army has started helping to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline NHS staff. Fifty military personnel are helping to deliver the equipment at the moment, however, that figure is expected to rise to more than 460.

Mr Hancock described it as "literally a military effort to get these millions of pieces of kit out to people". He said: "If people are working on the front line to look after us, it’s vital that we look after them." 

Range of Tasks

Former head of the army, General Lord Dannatt, has told Sky News the military will be taking on many different roles: "I think there's a whole range of tasks the military will be carrying out. I'm quite certain they are very much involved in putting up the temporary hospital at the ExCel centre and I'm sure will be helping with other temporary hospitals.

"I think we have a big issue of moving supplies around the country, the military can help with that. I think also distributing food where it's needed. There are a lot of tasks the military can do and to have a pool of 20,000 trained people available is extremely important."

Driving Oxygen Tankers

One hundred and fifty military personnel have begun training to drive oxygen tankers this week to help supply the NHS if required. 

The personnel from all three services, the Army, Royal Navy, and RAF are being taught the skills in the space of just a week in response to the worsening COVID-19 situation. The training usually takes much longer.

They’ll also be learning how to take chemicals into the vehicle and also distribute them to tanks at various locations.

Air Support as Required

As part of the military’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, forces from the Joint Helicopter Command are also on stand-by to provide aviation capability to support civil authorities.

This will enable access to isolated communities that may not be able to get access to urgent medical care during the pandemic. For example, on Sunday 22nd March, an RAF A400M transport aircraft from RAF Brize Norton with Scottish Ambulance Service personnel on board responded to a request to transfer a critically ill patient with coronavirus from a hospital in the Shetland Islands to an Intensive Care Unit in Aberdeen. 
The condition of the man in his 60s was deteriorating and he needed to be urgently evacuated. 

The Support Helicopter Force, Army Air Corps and Commando Helicopter Force will provide helicopters and personnel from across the three services, as required. 


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