Military medics have been tasked with aiding the NHS after at least 24 hospital trusts declared critical incidents, amid staffing shortages that risk compromising their ability to care for patients and provide priority services.
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 Guardian reported.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite ongoing concerns about the pressure facing the NHS and the decision to draft in the army, UK business minister Paul Scully claimed on Friday that the government still doesn’t see a need for further Covid restrictions to battle the wave of Omicron cases.
The situation facing NHS doctors and nurses in hospitals has been compounded by a report released on Thursday by the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee that warned the pandemic has created a backlog of 5.8 million people waiting for treatment.
On Thursday, the UK recorded 194,747 new daily Covid infections, bringing the total number of cases for the past seven days to over 1.1 million.