Soldiers have been partnered up with ambulance teams to help bolster the NHS’ emergency response during the coronavirus pandemic.
Servicemen from several British Army units have been loaned to the ambulance service in Wales to accompany paramedics out on calls, ahead of an anticipated surge in demand on staff whose numbers have already been depleted by self-isolation.
On Tuesday 60 soldiers finished their two-day ambulance training at the Sennybridge Training Camp near Brecon in Mid Wales, after which they will be ready to be deployed across Wales along with firefighters who will also undergo the same training.
Army personnel will not be able to travel under blue lights to emergencies, but their tasks will involve driving ambulances, lifting and handling patients and assisting paramedics with non-clinical tasks, allowing usual paramedic teams to split up and spread their resources across their fleet.
The Welsh Ambulance Service, who provided the training package, told the PA news agency between 15% and 20% of their workforce are currently off work with self-isolation, though the figure fluctuates day by day.
Some of the soldiers involved have experienced serving on the frontline in operations abroad, including Staff Sergeant Raymond Richardson who has served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland.
He said he and 10 others from his 14 Signal Regiment based in Pembrokeshire had been wanting to help the response to the pandemic, despite being aware of the effect the experiences that lay ahead could have on them.
Sgt Richardson told PA: “To get a task like this, where we are directly supporting the NHS, it’s a privilege and an honour.
“Sometimes when you’re deployed on operations you’re away from family or friends, you’re not in the UK, and you can disassociate yourself with what you’re doing and frame it in that environment, then return home and normalise.
“Going out on this task, it’s exciting if a little apprehensive, and it will affect you differently.
“I’ve been to numerous war zones and I’ve personally never seen someone die, or someone dead. So if that happens here it will be a different experience. But we’ve got quite a lot of measures in place to help people who’ve experienced high levels of stress.”
Lance Corporal Tom Dangerfield, 25, said the task ahead of him and others was “not something we are used to”, but that his colleagues were eager to be involved in the emergency response.
He said: “Obviously joining the army I never thought I’d be in this situation. It’s interesting, though, and all the lads are eager to learn. They just want to help.”
Asked about delays in the delivery of personal protective equipment to front line workers across the UK, he said: “I feel safe, I feel we’ve now got the right kit to do the task.”
Brigadier Andrew Dawes, Commander Joint Military Command Wales, said he had been given assurances that military personnel would be given the correct equipment to protect themselves on the frontline.
He said: “One of the key asks from the ambulance service was that they will treat our own people exactly the same as they treat their own workforce.”
Jason Killens, chief executive of the Welsh Ambulance Service, said he recognised the image of soldiers in uniform accompanying paramedics could be alarming to patients, but that it was needed to make sure ambulances were available to people “when they need us the most”.
He said: “I reassure the community this is nothing to worry about. If you do need to dial 999 in the coming weeks and an ambulance with a soldier or firefighter turns up, that’s OK, it’s planned, and the clinical care they receive will be the same.”
Mr Killens said his ambulance staff were concerned about growing pressures on the service and of disruptions to the supply of protective equipment, but were still focused on their jobs ahead of an expected peak in cases in the coming weeks.
He said: “From a frontline paramedic and emergency medical technician perspective, it’s right to say many of our staff are anxious, they’re frightened, they’re concerned about their welfare, and welfare and safety of their colleagues but crucially of their families back home.
“We’ve had issues as has been widely reported around personal protective equipment. That supply chain is settled for us now, we have got good supplies of equipment now, and while people are still anxious they are working very hard in uncharted territory.”
The training is part of UK Defence’s 20,000-strong Covid Response Force, set up to put service personnel and Reservists on standby to support public services in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.