The armed forces are preparing to send thousands of military medics to assist in NHS hospitals in the coming weeks as part of Operation Broadshare – the Ministry of Defence’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Planners believe the most efficient way to assist the stretched health service is to embed medical personnel within existing hospitals rather than build field facilities, which it is feared could drain resources away from the NHS.
Military medics have not yet been called up because the NHS has not formally requested help, but plans are being drawn up to allow the 11,200 trained members of the Defence Medical Service to assist as the emergency unfolds. Last week army doctors were being called back to the UK from a Defender Europe exercise in eastern and central Europe, as well as small specialist field hospital units, in preparation to be sent into emergency NHS units when required.
MoD sources said “nothing is off the table” but that the most likely scenario was that military medics would work within existing NHS structures. Emergency field hospitals could pull more people away from the frontline and complicate the crisis response, they added. The armed forces have a number of field hospitals that can be built rapidly, but experts said their capacity is relatively limited with only eight intensive care beds of the type likely to be needed for seriously-ill coronavirus patients.
Operation Broadshare is likely to become the most complex military event in Great Britain since the second world war, although the armed forces were actively deployed in Northern Ireland for 38 years during the Troubles. Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence select committee, said he believed “it was a matter of when, not if, the armed forces will be brought in”. He said the UK had some of the “best planners militarily in a crisis”.
The RAF announced on Monday that a man and a woman had tested positive for coronavirus at its Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus, after recently flying there from the UK. Formally, any government department has to request crisis support from the armed forces in a civil emergency such as the coronavirus outbreak. MoD officials are quietly preparing across the board to assist as needed. No immediate developments involving the MoD are expected from Monday’s Cobra emergency planning meeting, but the expectation is that the military will be engaged in the coming days and weeks.
There have been only a handful of requests from government departments so far, but that is expected to change, given that the coronavirus is spreading in the UK, and pressure on vital services is growing. Military planners have been asked to join England’s 38 local resilience forums – which specialise in coordinating the on-the-ground crisis response – from Monday, to help draw up contingency plans as the situation unfolds. Meanwhile, up to 5,000 military personnel are on standby to backfill for the police in guard duties, for example at the Houses of Parliament, part of longstanding and highly sensitive plans to deal with a terrorist crisis.
Known as Operation Temperer, the military assistance was deployed for the first time by Theresa May when she was prime minister, after the Manchester terror attack in 2017 – although her predecessor, David Cameron, was sensitive about the scheme, concerned it provoked comparisons with the long deployment in Northern Ireland. There are also suggestions that the MoD can help with logistics support, providing drivers for supermarkets, oil companies or other critical industries, but that is not currently thought to be a priority.