Military chiefs are putting up to 20,000 troops on standby to be deployed to Britain’s streets, hospitals and other key sites to help tackle the pandemic.
As part of a package of support, thousands of troops will be mobilised or flown home from overseas programmes and put at high readiness to move as part of a new Covid Support Force.
The most vital personnel are likely to be put in quarantine in UK bases until they are needed and all those overseas will have their holiday time cancelled.
At the same time, thousands of reservists will be put on a wartime-style footing to boost numbers.
There are fears that as the virus outbreak escalates, vital emergency service workers will need military back-up to deliver basic needs.
A total of 150 personnel will begin urgent training from Monday so they are able to drive oxygen tankers to the NHS if a gap emerges. Announcing the plans last night, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: ‘The unique flexibility and dedication of the services means that we are able to provide assistance across the whole of society in this time of need.’
Major General Charlie Stickland, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, added: ‘Putting more personnel at a higher state of readiness and having our Reserves on standby gives us greater flexibility to support public services as and when they require our assistance.
‘The Covid Support Force, potentially drawing upon our highly skilled scientists or oxygen tanker drivers, will form part of a whole force effort to support the country.’
The Army will also backfill key areas, including replacing police officers, border guards, prison officers and medics under plans code-named Operation Broadshare.
The military is preparing for all scenarios, as it would do in any emergency. In a most-likely scenario, thousands of military medics, including doctors, nurses and combat medics, will be deployed to help hospitals.
But the military could also be used to help expand hospital bed capacity.
This could see troops using hotels, barracks, or erecting Army field hospitals near key locations to help cope with the rising numbers of infected people.
One option that has not been ruled out is using a navy hospital ship which supported operations to curb the Ebola outbreak.
At any one time there are some 10,000 troops on standby in the UK to help with a crisis. But the number of those at high readiness will be increased to between 15,000 and 20,000 so there are more personnel available to support public services.
Measures have been taken to enable the call out of reservists, should they be required to join the response effort to help deliver public services.
Defence scientists at Porton Down are also working to understand the virus and help tackle its spread.
The military is also helping with ongoing repatriation flights from countries overseas. On top of this, the Ministry of Defence is looking to supply the NHS with as many of its 35 ventilators as possible.