Some 200 Armed Forces personnel are being deployed to support the NHS in London as hospitals grapple with staff shortages.
Military medics will assist NHS doctors and nurses with patient care, while general duty personnel will help fill gaps caused by other absences.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said the deployment means the government can no longer deny there is a “staffing crisis” within the NHS.
Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s director for England, said: “The prime minister and others can no longer be dismissive of questions about the ability of NHS staff to deliver safe care.
“Once the military has been brought in, where does the government turn next in a bid to ‘ride out’ the wave rather than deal with it?”
Lisa Elliott, the RCN’s London director, told Sky News that hospitals in the capital are “extremely busy at the moment” and the level of absence due to COVID “continues to go up”, creating a “very challenging situation to work in at the moment”.
“I think the fact that we’ve had to bring the Army in really demonstrates the huge pressures that services are under at the moment,” she said.
“My members will tell you that it doesn’t feel like it’s stabilising at the moment and they can’t see an end to it.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association, said “we have never known this level of staff absence before” and the pressures facing the health service and GPs “is not normal”.
Latest figures from NHS England show that 39,142 NHS staff at hospital trusts in England were absent because of COVID on 2 January, an increase of 59% on the week before (24,632) and more than three times the level it was at the start of December.
As of Thursday, 17 hospital trusts in England had declared critical incidents – signalling there are fears that priority services cannot be safely delivered.
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said rising case numbers were “piling even more pressure” on workers.
Speaking to Sky News on Friday, business minister Paul Scully acknowledged there were “pressures” on the health service but said ministers “don’t see the need” for further restrictions at this time.
MPs on the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee warned 5.8 million people are now waiting for treatment – with Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt urging the government to “wake up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS”.
London has been hard hit by the Omicron outbreak, and the Ministry of Defence says the 200 military personnel will be “on task” for three weeks.
Separately, 32 military co-responders are being provided to support the South Central Ambulance Service – working alongside paramedics until the end of March.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “The men and women of our Armed Forces are once again stepping up to support their dedicated colleagues in the NHS as they work hand-in-hand to protect the nation from COVID-19.
“They have shown their worth time and again throughout this pandemic, whether driving ambulances, administering vaccines or supporting patients in hospital, and they should be proud of their contribution to this truly national effort.”
About 1,800 service personnel are already deployed across the UK to support the civil authorities in their response to the pandemic.
They include 313 personnel assisting the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust and 96 with the Scottish Ambulance Service, while more than 1,000 are helping the vaccine booster programme.
Armed Forces minister James Heappey told Sky News: “London has made a request for support for hospitals that are struggling with winter pressures and Omicron and we’re able to help by sending personnel in to help with both clinical and administrative tasks.
“This will help nursing staff deliver on the wards while soldiers and sailors do some of the other things for them.
“Sailors and medics will be working with doctors and nurses but that’s not new. We’ve been doing that throughout the pandemic with trusts throughout the UK.
“It’s also tried and tested for non-clinical personnel to go into hospitals to do administrative tasks to help wards running well.”