Coronavirus: Thousands of armed forces staff could be put on standby over COVID-19 spread

Sky News 2020 UK

More than 10,000 British soldiers, sailors and airmen could be put on standby in the coming weeks as the coronavirus crisis worsens.

Officials have been drawing up plans for weeks and are now ready to submit proposals to the prime minister.

The plans, codenamed Operation Broadshare according to army sources, were originally due a few weeks ago but have been delayed so they can be altered to reflect the rapid spread of the virus.

Although Britain's armed forces are used to helping in times of national emergency, such as flooding or fuel strikes, never have they had to consider so many unknown potential scenarios.

The plans - codenamed Operation Broadshare - have been delayed so they can be altered to reflect the rapid spread of the virus.

At the extreme end, proposals have even been considered to cope with the breakdown of civil society.

"It feels like we're getting ready for war, but this time at home," one senior source familiar with the plans told Sky News.

"This is what the military is good at, we are always planning scenarios and ready to step in to help, however I've never known anything like this. There are just so many unknowns."

Some of the anticipated scenarios include personnel backing up the police force, protecting major buildings and locations, staffing morgues and helping older people with shopping and transport.

No units have been tasked yet, but that order could come within days if necessary.

One area the military will be able to help is by providing hundreds of HGV vehicles and drivers to help move food, stocks, medicine and supplies around. There are also plans for soldiers to protect quarantine zones with the police, if that ever came into force.

The military is working on the assumption at least 20% of its personnel will contract coronavirus. Last night, news emerged of two serving members who had tested positive after arriving in Cyprus on Friday afternoon. They are in self isolation and displaying mild symptoms.

Internally, plans have also been drawn up to minimise the impact on areas of extreme national security importance, such as the nuclear deterrent and the Air Command operation in Buckinghamshire that protects UK airspace. Shift patterns and working arrangements are being altered to prevent spread of the virus.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace might be forced to reveal some of the detail when he answers "defence questions" in the House of Commons later but the government is keen not to give away too much too soon - so as to avoid panic.

The military document is loosely based around Operation Temperer, the military plan that is enacted in the event of a major terror incident.

It is being seen as a template that can be adjusted and altered depending on the effect of the ongoing crisis.

A small number of personnel have already been seconded to regional centres to help with civic planning.

The armed forces have remained relatively free of confirmed coronavirus cases so far. A senior general was tested for the virus after returning from a conference in Germany, but he was given the all-clear.

A large exercise involving British forces in Norway was cancelled last week because of COVID-19, but a major US-led exercise in Europe is still going ahead for now, albeit in a limited form.

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