Health service officials emphasised combat medics were mainly doing the work of hospital healthcare assistants © Cpl Ben Beckett/MoD

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More than 600 military medics are being dispatched to NHS hospitals across England and Northern Ireland to bolster frontline clinicians as the health service struggles with the devastating impact of rising coronavirus admissions.

The military rollout comes as 3,709 people were admitted to hospital across the UK, according to the latest daily figures, a slight decrease on the previous week. Deaths, which lag admissions, rose more than 14 per cent over the same period, with 1,290 reported on Thursday. 

Layla McCay, a director at the NHS Confederation, which represents health organisations across the country, said pressures within hospitals had been “rising fast”, with a near 12 per cent increase in the overall number of patients admitted to critical care week-on-week. 

“There are also now more than 39,000 patients in hospital with Covid-19 and a new patient admitted every 30 seconds,” Dr McCay added.

While 400 military medics were sent to hospitals in London and the Midlands earlier this week, 110 are now being deployed to Northern Ireland and further support is being sent to other areas, including Kent and the South West.

The personnel are combat medics trained to work in intensive care units and in other hospital roles. However, NHS officials emphasised that they were mainly doing the work of hospital healthcare assistants, including observation of patients, liaising between clinical staff and families, and helping with ward activities.

Soldiers without medical training are also being deployed to hospitals to help with tasks such as portering.

“Hundreds of defence medics and general duties personnel have deployed to support hospitals across England at the request of the NHS,” said a Ministry of Defence spokesperson. Defence medics were working with patients alongside NHS colleagues “to provide high-quality care on the frontline of the fight against the virus”, the spokesperson added.

Support was requested from the MoD under the military aid to the civil authorities system, and is expected to last for eight weeks. But military chiefs are prepared to run the deployment for longer if needed.

The NHS said it was “grateful” to the military personnel working in hospitals alongside doctors, nurses and other volunteers, including 30,000 from the St John Ambulance charity. “The NHS has 50,000 more staff now working in the health service than a year ago, all working round the clock to respond to unprecedented pressure,” a spokesperson said.

However, the health service is being squeezed by high levels of sickness as frontline staff succumb to coronavirus. Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, on Sunday said combat medics would help fill the gaps left by the more than 50,000 staff who are absent “for Covid-related reasons”. Sir Simon acknowledged that the NHS was facing the toughest period in its 72-year history.

Military medics have been sent to the Royal London, King’s College, St George’s, the Royal Free and Hammersmith hospitals in the capital, and are expected at Bristol Royal Infirmary and Weston General Hospital in the South West, among others.

Robin Swann, minister of health for Northern Ireland, confirmed earlier this week that he had asked the MoD for urgent help to support services which were under strain. “Our hospitals are under immense pressure and an additional staffing complement will be very welcome on the frontline,” he said.

The MoD is also supporting the NHS in the UK’s vaccine rollout, with 450 personnel seconded to the programme across England, Wales and Scotland.

The new nationwide lockdown rules in England

  • The main restriction is a firm stay-at-home message

  • People are only allowed to leave their home to go to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home, to shop for essential food, medicines and other necessities and to exercise with their household or one other person — once a day and locally

  • The most clinically vulnerable have been asked to shield

  • All colleges and primary and secondary schools are closed until a review at half-term in mid-February. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers are still able to attend while nursery provision is available

  • University students have to study from home until at least mid-February

  • Hospitality and non-essential retail are closed. Takeaway services are available but not for the sale of alcohol

  • Entertainment venues and animal attractions such as zoos are closed. Playgrounds are open

  • Places of worship are open but one may attend only with one’s household

  • Indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including courts, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and riding arenas, are closed. Elite sport, including the English Premier League, continues

  • Overseas travel is allowed for “essential” business only 

Full details are available on the government’s official website.

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