UK mounts maritime response to Ebola crisis


The response of the international community to the Ebola crisis in West Africa continues to ratchet up, with London dispatching a maritime-based medical task force (MTF) to Sierra Leone.

Civilian and military medical personnel with stores and equipment are currently on passage to the former British colony on board the 'Argus'.

The 'Argus' is a specialist vessel of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), the logistical support fleet of the British Royal Navy (RN). The ship is due to arrive off Sierra Leone by October 28.

Also on board the 'Argus' is a detachment of 70 Royal Marines with landing craft and three RN Merlin helicopters. The Marines will provide personnel protection, and secure ship-to-shore transport.

The helicopters will carry out reconnaissance missions and fly medical teams and equipment to locations where support services are urgently needed.

Meanwhile, 'Argus' will remain offshore to providing a secure, sanitised, and non-politically contentious base facility.

This mission, Operation Gritrock, is scheduled to six months. The aim is for the MTF to help beleaguered local health staff to set up high-quality medical facilities where most needed, and to train them to use these facilities efficiently, thereby containing the pandemic.

It is not intended for any Ebola patients to be treated on board the RFA ship.

The 28,000 tonne, 175-metre 'Argus', originally the Italian-built container ship 'Contender Bezant', was converted into an aviation training ship for the RFA in 1988. In 2007 she was fitted with a 100-patient hospital suite to take on the additional role of primary casualty receiving ship (PCRS).

Because a PCRS is not classified as a hospital ship under international law, the 'Argus' could, in time of conflict, return treated casualties directly to the battle space.

The ship is also permitted to undertake other military tasks and to retain its armament of two 20-millimetre cannon and four machine guns.

The ship has proved to be a most versatile asset over the years, having been deployed on anti-submarine, amphibious warfare, disaster relief and offshore patrol operations in addition to its main tasks.

Trevor Hollingsbee
Image Source: Paul A'Barrow- Crown Copyright

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