By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom will use firefighters to help deliver food, retrieve dead bodies and drive ambulances as it braces for the looming peak of the coronavirus outbreak that has already claimed the lives of more than 22,000 people across the world.
Britain initially took a strikingly modest approach to the worst health crisis since the 1918 influenza epidemic but then changed tack to impose stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million British people could die.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a virtual lockdown of the world’s fifth largest economy to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus banning Britons from leaving their homes for all non-essential reasons.
So far, 578 people in the United Kingdom have died after testing positive for coronavirus and the number of confirmed cases has risen to 11,658. The UK toll is the seventh worst in the world, after Italy, Spain, China, Iran, France and the United States, according to a Reuters tally.
Under a deal struck between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Fire chiefs and Fire and Rescue Employers, firefighters will continue to respond to their usual emergencies but will now also carry out new tasks.
“We face a public health crisis unparalleled in our lifetimes. The coronavirus outbreak is now a humanitarian emergency and firefighters rightly want help their communities,” said Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary.
“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.”
As well as collecting those who die should there be mass casualties, firefighters can drive ambulances, and take food and medicine to the vulnerable under the agreement.
To cope with the outbreak, Britain has already asked tens of thousands of retired doctors and healthcare workers to return to work, while hundreds of thousands of people have volunteered to assist the state-run National Health Service.
On Friday, the capital’s ambulance service appealed to former paramedics and control room staff for help, and London’s police force asked officers who have retired in the last five years to come back.
“It is important that we take all reasonable steps to bolster our numbers,” London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said.
Britons across the country took to their balconies and front doors on Thursday evening to applaud health workers and bang pots and pans to show support for those working for the nation’s much-loved NHS.
There has been criticism that the government has not acted quickly enough to provide protective equipment to frontline healthcare staff and it is also scrambling to source thousands of ventilators to treat those with severe breathing problems caused by the virus.
The government has admitted that it missed an opportunity to join a European Union procurement scheme to source the equipment because of an email mix up.
“There was an issue in terms of communications so the tendering process on those schemes had already started,” Business Secretary Alok Sharma told BBC radio on Friday.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)