Armed Forces medics will spend at least two months in hospitals across the South East to help ease the pressure on frontline staff struggling to cope with the rising number of coronavirus patients, The Telegraph can reveal.
More than 200 military medics and other support staff will be deployed across five London hospitals from Monday as the virus threatens to overwhelm the NHS in the capital.
The trained medics will help treat patients under the supervision of NHS staff, at a time when figures show around half of patients in London hospitals are now suffering from Covid-19.
It comes as patient charities warn of the "devastating impact" on cancer sufferers waiting in limbo for treatment, after their operations were postponed or delayed by hospitals struggling to deal with Covid cases.
Daily growth in Covid-19 hospital admissions by region
The 200 Armed Forces medics will deploy to the Royal London Hospital, Kings College Hospital, St Georges Hospital, Royal Free Hospital and Hammersmith Hospital.
Some 50 defence medics will also be sent to support hospitals in Essex and Kent, along with the Welsh Ambulance NHS Service Trust and the vaccine rollout in Wales.
Around 150 general duties personnel will also be deployed to help in non-patient roles so NHS personnel can be freed up for frontline work.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said: “The Armed Forces have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the NHS since the start of this pandemic and remain ready to help whenever and wherever needed. That is why I have authorised another 200 medics and further general duties personnel to be deployed directly into hospitals to assist NHS staff and ensure patients continue to get the care they require.
“I have no doubt more tasks will follow over the coming weeks, but the Armed Forces are prepared to meet the challenge and help this nation recover from the Covid pandemic.”
The medics will come from units across the military, including 1 Royal Anglian, 16 Air Assault Brigade, Headquarters Home Command and Joint Helicopter Command and are expected to assist NHS staff for at least eight weeks.
NHS data shows that on January 11 the number of Covid patients in London’s hospitals exceeded non-Covid for the first time since last spring, with 5,644 compared to 5,592. On January 12, the most recent day data was published, this dropped back slightly to 5,563 Covid patients and 5,740 non-Covid.
London coronavirus cases chart
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “Defence already has around 1,600 medical personnel working in the NHS on a permanent basis and is working with the NHS to provide further support where it will be needed over the coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, Labour has called for the Government to step-up the number of Armed Forces personnel receiving the Covid vaccines.
It pointed out that the average weekly number of coronavirus tests administered to defence staff per week is just 1,901 and that the number of confirmed cases in defence personnel jumped to an all-time high of 3,291 in December, up by more than 1,000 on the previous month.
Stephen Morgan, Portsmouth South MP and shadow minister for the Armed Forces, said: “Government must rapidly ramp up testing for our armed forces, who are putting themselves at greater risk of contracting the virus. The Defence Secretary must also set out a clear and credible plan to vaccinate our troops, particularly for those who are to be deployed for longer periods of time. We must protect those who are protecting us.”
The announcement comes as new figures show that more than 1,000 people in need of urgent cancer surgery in London have been given no date for their treatment.
These are cancer surgery patients who are defined as P2 (priority two), meaning they need to be seen within four weeks or risk their condition worsening. The report, leaked to the Health Service Journal, also showed more than 300 such P2 patients had their surgery postponed in the past week.
Sara Bainbridge, Macmillan Cancer Support head of policy and influence, said: “Cancer must not become ‘the Forgotten C’ during this time and it’s vital that people who need tests and treatment face minimal disruption.”
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: "The Government must take decisive action to protect cancer services, using the independent sector to enable urgent cancer surgery to continue."
Cancer operations are also being delayed in other parts of the country, as regional hospitals begin to suffer the impact of the surge in Covid cases.
An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS trusts continue to treat as many elective patients as possible, prioritising those who have been waiting the longest, whilst maintaining cancer and urgent treatments and the landmark deal struck with the independent sector means thousands more cancer operations and other procedures can take place in private hospitals this winter.”
A spokesperson for Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership added: “Since the pandemic began, our hospitals have worked hard to ensure that cancer treatment can continue in a safe and Covid-secure way.”