The armed forces are being deployed to help hospitals in London deal with a surge in Covid patients because the Omicron variant is leaving so many staff sick and unable to work.
Of the 200 military personnel involved, 40 are doctors who will help NHS staff look after patients. The other 160 personnel, who have no medical training, will check in patients, ensure stocks are maintained and would also be “conducting basic checks”, the Ministry of Defence said.
Some have already started work and they are expected to support the NHS in the capital until the end of the month.
The announcement comes two days after Boris Johnson said he hopes England can “ride out” the current wave of Covid-19 without further restrictions, but did acknowledge parts of the NHS would feel “temporarily overwhelmed” by Omicron.
Health union leaders, although grateful for the help, have said this latest move means the government can no longer be “dismissive” of concerns about “delivering safe care”.
Thousands of NHS staff have been off work each week in London, which last month became the first part of the country to see a huge wave of Covid cases caused by the new strain, leaving hospitals struggling to cope with unprecedented levels of staff absence.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of hospitals group NHS Providers, welcomed the assistance from personnel from what is thought to be all three armed forces. But he said that their arrival underlined the extent of NHS understaffing.
“Trust leaders will welcome the support of colleagues from the armed forces during what continues to be an incredibly challenging time for the NHS in London.
“The fact that we need to call upon army medics and general duty personnel at all underlines the sheer scale of the workforce challenges the NHS is facing.
“The experience of the pandemic makes plain underlying issues which need resolution – the need for a national long-term plan for the health and care workforce, ongoing challenges with vacancies and recruitment pre-dating the pandemic by a number of years.”
Hospitals elsewhere in England, which are seeing dramatic increases in Covid admissions, may also seek military aid, Hopson added.
The news came as the UK reported a further 179,756 Covid cases on Thursday, with the number of people infected with the Omicron variant continuing to increase rapidly.
The latest figures – which reflect infections picked up by testing – bring the UK total for the past seven days to 1,272,131, up 29% on the week before. The true number of infections is estimated to be substantially higher as not all infections are captured by the testing programme.
The data also showed that in England there are 17,988 Covid patients in hospital, up from 15,659 the day before, with a further 231 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test reported in the UK on Thursday.
Military personnel have helped out in hospitals in previous waves of the pandemic and continue to assist the ambulance services in Wales and Scotland and have also been helping the booster programme.
The Royal College of Nursing said the deployment proved that the NHS is critically short of staff and asked for assurances that those involved have the skills to help look after patients.
“The government can no longer deny the staffing crisis in the NHS. The prime minister and others can no longer be dismissive of questions about the ability of NHS staff to deliver safe care,” said Patricia Marquis, its nursing director for England.
“Once the military has been brought in, where does the government turn next in a bid to ‘ride out’ the wave rather than deal with it?
“Nursing staff might welcome any extra help at work right now, but we need to know that the government isn’t compromising patient and professional standards in any way.”
Hopson earlier said soaring infection rates in the north of England mean that one NHS trust expects to have 30% more Covid cases next week than it had at the last peak.
He fears that hospitals outside the capital will not be as able to cope with the new wave of admissions as those in London. He said this was because they had deeper staffing problems, higher levels of sickness and absence, older populations and in some cases worse social care provision.
Some trusts outside London have as many as 19% of their staff absent because of Covid, much higher than the 10% off sick or isolating that other NHS organisations have been reporting, he added.