Looks like the Royal Navy’s casualty-receiving vessel Argus, the closest thing the U.K. fleet has to a hospital ship is deploying to battle the coronavirus.
Argus on April 2, 2020 deployed from her home port of Devonport, bound for the British West Indies, which include Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
While normally a training platform for helicopter pilots, with 100 patient beds Argus also can function as a low-level hospital, potentially offering meaningful reinforcement to the medical systems of small territories. The 574-feet-long vessel is part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
“RFA Argus’ ship’s company, consisting of both Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Royal Navy personnel, will rise to this challenge,” the ship’s commanding officer Capt. Terence Barke said in a statement. “We understand that there are people in need in the U.K. Overseas Territories who require our support.”
Argus in late March 2020 was the subject of tabloid rumors as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United Kingdom. More than one news outlet falsely reported that the Royal Navy planned to moor Argus in the Thames River so that the vessel could receive coronavirus patients from overwhelmed London hospitals.
Instead, the ship sailed to Devonport and prepared for a long-planned deployment to the Caribbean. The Royal Navy routinely deploys a ship across the Atlantic Ocean for the West Indies’ summer hurricane season. Now Argus also will have a pandemic-response mission.
“The deployment of this ship is just one way the U.K. government is supporting communities at home and overseas as together we face the biggest public health emergency in a generation,” Minister of State for Defense Jeremy Quinn said in a statement.
Argus joins other auxiliary and amphibious vessels that have taken on a pandemic-relief role. The French navy has mobilized all three of its Mistral-class amphibious assault ships and is deploying them across Europe, Asia and the Americas in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The French navy in late March 2020 quickly set up isolation wards aboard the Mistral-class ship Tonnerre in order to transport coronavirus patients from the island of Corsica to hospitals on the mainland.
The U.S. Navy meanwhile has deployed its two hospital ships to American cities to help reinforce hospitals anticipating a spike in coronavirus patients.
Mercy is moored in the Port of Los Angeles. Comfort is off New York City. The thousand-bed vessels aren’t actually treating coronavirus patients. Rather, they’re handling non-virus trauma cases in order to free up beds and personnel in civilian hospitals.
But with residents in New York City and Los Angeles mostly staying home, there are few non-coronavirus cases for the huge hospital ships to treat. Comfort had on-board just 20 patients as of April 3, 2020. Mercy at the same time had just 15 patients.
The gap is partially the fault of bureaucracy. But the Trump administration’s policies also are to blame.
While a hospital ship designed for handling combat casualties isn’t ideal for the kind of treatment that coronavirus patients need, Comfort and Mercy in theory are capable of caring for pandemic victims. “If our mission shifts, we do what we can to meet that mission,” Capt. Patrick Amersbach, the commanding officer of the medical personnel aboard Comfort, told reporters.
But Pres. Donald Trump has not ordered the ships to treat pandemic victims. Michael Dowling, the head of Northwell Health, New York’s largest hospital system, told The New York Times that the limits the administration has imposed on Comfort are “a joke.”