Grounded airline staff asked to bolster NHS resources

Thousands of airline cabin crew grounded by the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK are being asked to support doctors and nurses at new temporary field hospitals being built around the UK.

The offer to redeploy airline staff comes as the NHS confirmed the death of its first frontline doctor from the virus in Britain. Consultant Amged El-Hawrani, 55, who had tested positive for coronavirus, died at Leicester Royal Infirmary on Saturday, University Hospitals of Derby and Burton said on Sunday. 

“Nobody can be in any doubt about the scale of the challenge we face with this virus, and Amged’s death is not just an individual human tragedy but a stark reminder to the whole country that we all must take this crisis seriously,” said Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director.

With the NHS bracing itself for a dramatic increase in coronavirus patients in the next month, the government is urgently trying to recruit extra medical staff to deal with the emergency which has already claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people in the UK. 

According to NHS England, the budget airline easyJet has now written to all 9,000 of its UK based staff, which includes 4,000 cabin crew who are trained in CPR, to ask for volunteers to work at the new hospitals being rapidly built in conference centres in major British cities.

Virgin Atlantic will also write to approximately 4,000 of their employees from Monday to make the same request.

Staff who volunteer will continue to be paid by easyJet and Virgin via the government’s job retention scheme, which guarantees 80 per cent of their salary up to £2,500 per month.

It is envisaged that the cabin crew will work alongside experienced doctors and nurses, changing beds, and doing other non-clinical tasks in the wards of the new Nightingale hospitals.

A 4,000 bed hospital is being built with support from the UK’s armed forces at the Excel conference centre in the docklands area of east London. Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said on Friday that two more were planned; one at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham and another at the Manchester Central Conference Centre.

The offer by Virgin Atlantic and Easy Jet comes amid the aviation industry’s worst crisis in decades.

Last week the Financial Times revealed that Virgin Atlantic is expected to ask for a package of commercial loans and guarantees worth hundreds of millions of pounds to help it through the crisis as passenger numbers plummet.

EasyJet is also understood to be considering a request as are regional airlines such as Loganair, Eastern Airways, and the troubled airline Norwegian Air Shuttle which has some 350 UK employees.

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Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has said the government will not offer an industry-wide bailout to airlines and airports plunged into crisis as countries close their borders to international travel. 

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Instead the government expects the industry to explore options to bolster cash before asking for state aid, which would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Totis Kotsonis, a state aid expert at law firm Pinsent Masons, said the offer of staff support from the airlines was welcome but added that the government’s approach towards financial help for the industry “seems appropriate”.

“Not all, but certainly a number of airlines would appear to have other options at this point which, with shareholder support, they can access before state intervention becomes essential for their survival,” he said.

Corneel Koster, chief customer officer at Virgin Atlantic, said: “The NHS approached us with this unique opportunity as they recognise the value and experience our medically trained cabin crew and trainers will bring to the incredible Nightingale Hospital initiative.”

Tina Milton, director of cabin services for easyJet, said: “We have all needed the NHS at some point in our lives and we are so proud that our crew can now help to support the NHS at this crucial time.”


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