British hospitals need a substantial military airlift to fly in desperately needed equipment to protect medical staff from the coronavirus.
The situation is becoming increasingly urgent after paperwork in Turkey has delayed the export of 400,000 protective gowns. Three RAF transport planes are on standby for immediate take off once the Turkish authorities release the personal protection equipment (PPE) that was expected to arrive on Sunday.
The British military currently has a C17 Globemaster, capable of airlifting 77,000kg, and two Atlas A400M, each with a 37,000kg cargo capacity, on standby at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. It would take the aircraft a total of at least 12 hours to fly to Turkey, refuel, load up and return to Britain.
Two previous RAF airlifts from Turkey have taken place under a Nato reciprocal medical supplies agreement but the current consignment is part of a bilateral deal.
The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across healthcare, said delays on the shipment from Turkey have made “a difficult situation worse”. Doctors and nurses working on the front-line against Covid-19 are now running short of gowns, masks and visors.
National Health Service chiefs are becoming increasingly frustrated at the government’s failure to deliver on their promises of equipment. Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers which is trying to procure the kit, said there was now “no doubt” that hospitals had a shortfall of gowns for staff treating Covid-19 victims.
“We are told that this consignment is still stuck in Turkey with no certainty on how many gowns, if any, will leave for the UK and when,” Mr Hopson said.
With the NHS using more than 150,000 of the single-use gowns a day, stocks will potentially run out by the end of the week even if the delivery of 400,000 arrives from Turkey in the coming days. Some medical staff are threatening to refuse to work unless they are properly equipped.
A government minister said Britain was “working very hard” to resolve the issue but added there had been “challenges at the Turkish end”.
"I don't want to start making more and more promises but I understand that the flight will take off this afternoon and those gowns will be delivered," Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, told the BBC.
Mr Dowden added that Britain was working in “a competitive global environment” to secure equipment that is urgently needed by other countries. With more than 750,000 people diagnosed with the virus, America is foremost in trying to buy PPE in the world market.
Despite this, Britain still hopes to import 25 million gowns from China which the minister said would arrive “shortly”. Currently, British industry is not in a position to mass produce garments domestically.
A Government spokesperson said: “We are continuing to work to ensure the shipment is delivered as soon as possible”.
With 120,000 cases and more than 16,000 deaths, Britain is heading towards the highest Covid-19 fatality count in Europe. The government is facing increased criticism for its lack of preparation and slow response to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, continues to recuperate from the illness and is not expected back at work until next month.