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British troops were deploying Friday to hospitals in London that are struggling to cope with “exceptional” staff shortages amid the surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant.
The Ministry of Defense said that it was sending some 40 military medics and 160 general duty staff to plug staffing gaps caused by National Health Service personnel who are either ill or self-isolating amid the spike in coronavirus cases in the capital.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this week he hoped the country can “ride out” the pandemic without further restrictions, even as he warned that the country faces difficult days ahead caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant.
The military deployment underscores the impact on Britain's health service of the pandemic that infected nearly 180,000 people on Thursday alone in the country, forcing many workers to stay home.
“The men and women of our armed forces are once again stepping up to support their dedicated colleagues in the NHS as they work hand-in-hand to protect the nation from COVID-19," Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said.
“They have shown their worth time and again throughout this pandemic, whether driving ambulances, administering vaccines or supporting patients in hospital, and they should be proud of their contribution to this truly national effort,” he added.
Health service leaders said the military deployment highlighted how the country is battling to stay on top of the pandemic.
Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association, told Sky News “we have never known this level of staff absence before.”
He said the health service faces pressure every winter, "but I don’t think anyone who’s worked in the NHS has experienced this level of absence of their colleagues and we’re feeling it in very real time because doctors and nurses and healthcare workers are having to cover for their absent colleagues — that’s adding additional, exceptional strain.”
Across England, hospitals are declaring “critical incidents” due to staff shortages and postponing planned surgeries.
“This is not normal, and therefore, the government does need to recognize this is clearly an NHS under extreme pressure and the living reality sadly for thousands of patients is that they’re suffering the consequences of such pressures and also staff absence,” Nagpaul said.
While the current military focus is on London, it could spread.
Air Commodore John Lyle told the BBC that the military remains in discussion about further support for the NHS in other parts of the country.
“We can’t really forecast too far ahead, but certainly, throughout this current surge, we know that it’s particularly difficult in London at the minute but we are aware that this is impacting all across the United Kingdom,” he said.
Nagpaul urged action to bring down infections and better protect health staff against the omicron variant, saying it was important that “the government doesn’t just wait to ride this out, because every day people are suffering.”