RFA Argus sailed from Plymouth this afternoon on a long-planned deployment to the Caribbean. Equipped with a 100-bed medical facility she may be called upon to assist British Overseas Territories dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. French, and possibly Dutch vessels are also being sent to the region to support their territories. Co-ordination between the naval forces is likely but this is not a formal joint, EU or NATO operation.
There have been some recent media reports claiming Argus would be sent to London so her medical facilities could be used to supplement the work of the NHS. She is not a hospital ship but is a Primary Casualty Reception Ship (PCRS) designed to receive casualties from the battlefield, typically by helicopter, to be stabilised before sending them on to hospitals ashore. Compared with the 4,000-bed NHS Nightingale hospital, amazingly built in just nine days at London’s ExCel Exhibition Centre, Argus has a very limited capacity. This consists of 10 intensive care, 20 high-dependency and 70 general ward beds. Although Argus is fitted with a lift and ramp between the flight deck and hospital, patients, staff and supplies have much easier access at ExCel than would be the case if using a ship.
Sending RFA Argus to the Caribbean makes sense. RFA Mounts Bay returned from 3 years in the region in mid-March and Argus was already scheduled to replace her disaster-relief capability if needed during the hurricane season that starts in June. Offshore Patrol Vessel HMS Medway is now permanently deployed in the region and is well suited to maritime security tasks but has nothing like the disaster-relief and medical capacity of the RFA. The ready-made medical facility, mobility and aviation capabilities of Argus are much more suited to helping the smaller population of islanders than thousands of Londoners. At the time of writing, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Caribbean vary and travel restrictions may help the islands control the outbreak. Bermuda already has 32 cases and just declared a state of emergency, enforcing a 24-hour curfew for 14 days. Healthcare provision in the Caribbean is limited and could be quickly overwhelmed if the situation worsens.
For government planners responding to the pandemic in the UK and considering its overseas territories, the shortage of medical personnel and equipment is more of a problem than the hospital facilities themselves. The medical facility onboard Argus is not permanently staffed and the majority of Royal Naval medics that are embarked for short periods are already at work in the NHS hospitals. Argus will sail with a small medical team and their supplies but staff would have to be increased if she needs to take more than a handful of patients.
Argus will shortly embark three Merlin Mk 4s of 845 NAS and a Wildcat of 815 NAS which will offer a very useful personnel and stores lifting capability. She is also carrying water and ration packs provided by DFiD and materials to repair damage and clear blocked roads.
Argus has an outstanding record in serving the nation. Originally taken up from trade in 1982 for the Falklands Crisis, she served in the first Gulf War (1991), Bosnia (1993) and Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2001), second Gulf War (2003) and off Sierra Leone again, supporting the military response to control the Ebola outbreak (2014). Few vessels have ever provided the taxpayer with such good value for money. She will go out of service in 2024 and the NAO reported in February that the MoD has no budget allocated to replace her. The 41-year-old ship completed a major 12-month refit and engine overhaul at Falmouth in January 2019 and another maintenance period at the end of February 2019. She has been alongside in Devonport preparing to deploy for the last couple of weeks.
The French Navy will send their assault ship FS Dixmude and the auxiliary tanker FS Somme to assist their ‘Overseas Departments’ of French Antilles and French Guyana. The FS Dixmude is currently preparing to sail from Toulon, her main medical facility has 69 beds and another 50 can be added by utilising space in the hangar. FS Somme will be on hand to provide logistical support and fuel as many parts of the Caribbean lack the infrastructure required to sustain naval vessels. The French territories appear to have been harder hit by the virus, Martinique and Guadeloupe already have 70 confirmed cases. A second LPD, FS Mistral will support relief work in the French islands of Reunion and Mayotte in the southern Indian Ocean.
There is also speculation the Netherlands will deploy their largest naval vessel, HNLMS Karel Doorman, in support of their territories of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. Joint Support Ship, Karel Doorman, can carry a substantial cargo load and has a small medical facility including 2 operating theatres, 3 intensive care beds, 10 medium care beds.
This naval contribution to what is a global pandemic may be relatively small but demonstrates to the Overseas Territories that they are not forgotten as well as the inherent flexibility of naval forces, ready to respond to unexpected events.Caribbean-Region-Map-1
Main image: RFANostalgia. Argus sails from Plymouth today.