Three Royal Navy helicopters based in Cornwall are going to be used as flying air ambulances across the South West in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
They will also be used to transport medical staff and deliver emergency supplies across the whole of the West Country - from Bristol to the Isles of Scilly.
The Merlin Mk2 helicopters and their crews based at RNAS Culdrose near Helston will provide round-the-clock support to the NHS and South Western Ambulance Service.
In preparation for their task the helicopters - normally used to track submarines - have been stripped out so they can carry several stretchers, along with passengers and equipment, over long distances.
Commander Knowles said efforts had been made to protect crews “and the whole Culdrose family” from the risk of infection, following medical guidelines for isolating patients and decontaminating the helicopters, equipment and uniforms.
“We’ve had a run through and it was very successful,” he added.
His air and ground crew will be working 12-hour shifts to be able to respond to the pandemic, carrying NHS paramedics with patients when required.
It’s the second time in five years the squadron has been called upon to help during a medical emergency. Its helicopters supported the UK’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa over the winter of 2014-15.
At the same time as supporting civilian authorities, Culdrose’s Merlin Force will continue their usual duties; protecting UK waters and safeguarding the strategic nuclear deterrent.
“We are very aware that we have an important role to play in supporting the nation at this difficult time; we will make every effort to provide this contribution and make a difference in our region,” said Commander James Hall, in charge of the Maritime Merlin Force.
“We train our people to do this type of task all of the time; it is something that they all have the skills to deliver at sea and on land.”