Coronavirus: Firefighters to deliver food and medicine, drive ambulances and retrieve bodies during outbreak

New measures agreed as union chief says UK is facing ‘unparalleled’ public health crisis

Conrad Duncan
Friday 27 March 2020 13:18 GMT
Coronavirus: Activity around ExCeL centre being turned into a hospital

Firefighters have been drafted in to deliver food and medicine to vulnerable people, drive ambulances and even collect bodies during the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, as the government scrambles to pull together emergency staff to manage a surge in the number of cases.

The new measure – agreed by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), fire chiefs and employers – will allow firefighters to maintain their core services, such as attending fires and road traffic accidents, but also provide extra services during the pandemic.

Former ambulance staff and police officers have also been urged to return to the front line or to come out of retirement to help public services cope with demand.

“We face a public health crisis unparalleled in our lifetimes,” Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said.

“The coronavirus outbreak is now a humanitarian emergency and firefighters rightly want to help their communities.”

He added: “Firefighters are fantastic at teamwork, are experienced in driving emergency vehicles and, as a service rooted in the community, may be best placed to deliver essential items to the most vulnerable.

“Many fear the loss of life in this outbreak could be overwhelming – and firefighters, who often handle terrible situations and incidents, are ready to step in to assist with body retrieval.”

The plan, which affects the UK’s 48,000 firefighters and emergency control staff, is set to run for two months but could be extended if necessary.

However, Mr Wrack said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it would be “quite a serious challenge” for firefighters to take on more work.

He also said firefighters needed assurances they would be given personal protective equipment while they take on the additional duties.

“No one can do their job if their own safety is compromised,” Mr Wrack said.

Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has written to all former officers who retired within the last five years to ask them to rejoin the force, on either a paid or voluntary basis.

“On behalf of London, and all the men and women of the Met, it is important that we take all reasonable steps to bolster our numbers,” Ms Dick said.

“Demands on us will grow and vary over the coming weeks, but I want people to know and see that the Met is here for them.”

Meanwhile, serving officers who are nearing 30 years of pensionable service have been asked to delay their retirement.

London Ambulance Service has also asked former employees to “consider returning” to support the service.

The capital has emerged as a major concern for the government’s response to Covid-19 amid fears that it will become an infection hotspot similar to Madrid or New York.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, warned that London health services could be overwhelmed by a “tsunami” of coronavirus cases in the coming weeks.

As of Friday morning, London has reported almost 200 of the UK’s 578 deaths, according to NHS data.

In response, the government has begun converting the ExCel conference centre in east London into an emergency hospital designed to treat up to 4,000 Covid-19 patients.

Emergency services have also faced issues with staff numbers due to workers going off sick or having to isolate.

As of Tuesday, at least 280 workers in the London Fire Brigade were in isolation (5 per cent of its overall staff), while the West Midlands Fire Service, which covers Birmingham, had 105 staff in isolation (5.5 per cent of staff) and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service had 285 staff in isolation, according to the FBU.

Additional reporting by PA

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