The military has been deployed to the frontline of NHS hospitals in London, the first such deployment in England during this winter’s coronavirus wave, underlining the strain the Omicron variant is putting on staffing in the health service as hospitalisations rise.
Some 40 defence medics and 160 other personnel will provide support to hospitals across London for the next three weeks, the Ministry of Defence announced on Friday. Some personnel have already started their postings.
The announcement of the deployment of military personnel into hospitals came after UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Thursday said he would maintain a “voluntary” approach to Covid-19 vaccinations, even as ministers explored plans to toughen up rules against those who are unjabbed.
Members of the UK armed forces have supported the NHS in other roles throughout the pandemic, including most recently by deploying as ambulance drivers and helping in vaccine clinics. But this is the first time since last winter’s coronavirus wave that such large numbers of military personnel will help out on hospital wards.
The move comes despite signs of improving trends in the spread of coronavirus in London, the region first hit by the Omicron wave, while the rest of the country is facing a surge in infections and hospital admissions.
In London, the number of weekly Covid admissions has remained stagnant, with around 2,700 recorded in the last week. But hospitalisations in the rest of England are up 58 per cent, with 11,576 admissions in the seven days to January 4.
A senior NHS official told the FT they expected other regions to “follow suit” by requesting military support in the weeks ahead. At least 24 NHS hospital trusts — a sixth of the total — have declared critical incidents because of staff absences.
Around one in 10 of the NHS workforce in England were absent on New Year’s Eve, according to official data seen by the Sunday Times. Covid-related absences among hospital staff had climbed by 62 per cent in five days to December 31, with more than 40,000 staff off sick or self-isolating.
“Once again [the armed forces] are stepping up to assist NHS workers who are working round the clock across the capital, helping the health service through this difficult winter period where the need is greatest,” Sajid Javid, the UK health secretary, said.
Speaking during a visit to a vaccination centre in Northampton on Thursday, the UK prime minister said the government would not adopt the “coercion”-based approach of some other European countries.
“I think it’s important we have a voluntary approach in this country,” he told reporters. “I believe in doing things through everyone working together and seeing the vital importance of vaccination. Other European countries are going for coercion.”
Despite Johnson downplaying a harder line on vaccinations, discussions within government continue over whether to toughen the rules. This could include requiring some travellers arriving in England having to show proof of a booster jab to avoid quarantine.
“We would look at that if we thought it was appropriate,” one government insider told the FT. Officials have stressed discussions are at the preliminary stage and changes in travel rules were not “imminent”.
Ministers also discussed the possibility of denying access to large venues for individuals who have not had a booster jab, as first reported in The Times.
However, one government official said ministers remained reluctant to make any changes to Covid certification rules, particularly in light of the Conservative rebellion against Plan B measures last month.