MP Penny Mordaunt has proposed that some of the foreign aid budget be used to build hospital ships to provide humanitarian aid in disaster zones.
In a letter to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a copy of which has been seen by the Daily Mail and reported on here, Mordaunt claims that the ships could take the place of vessels such as RFA Mounts Bay, which has been stationed in the Caribbean during the hurricane season.
Mordaunt is the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth North. She has served as Secretary of State for International Development since 2017 and Minister for Women and Equalities since April 2018. Before becoming an MP, Mordaunt worked in business and communications and is currently the only female MP who is a Royal Naval Reservist.
Currently the UK uses Bay class vessel RFA Mounts Bay in a disaster relief role and the contribution of the vessel and hew crew cannot be understated, however, she was wasn’t designed for this task.
The Bay class are operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and are officially designated as ‘Landing Ship Docks’. Each Bay class vessel is capable of carrying up to 24 Challenger tanks or 150 military trucks in 1,150 linear metres of space. The UK operates three Bay class vessels after selling the fourth to Australia.
RFA Mounts Bay deployed to the Caribbean to provide support during the 2017 hurricane season. She was tasked to assist in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations at Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
The UK can also call upon RFA Argus as according to the Royal Navy, the principal role of Argus is to serve as a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship (PCRS). The vessel also once served as an Aviation Training Ship however a ramp for casualty transport replaced one of the aircraft hangars and the PCRS role became the ship’s primary function.
According to the Ministry of Defence, as the ship is armed and is not painted in the required white with red crosses, the Geneva Convention prevents her from being officially classified as a hospital ship.
Despite that, the vessel has a fully equipped 100-bed medical complex on board, which can be tailored to deliver treatment afloat. The vessel has sailed before to support potential humanitarian operations during the hurricane season, with a primary mission to support the British Overseas Territories should they require assistance but again, she was not designed for this.
Argus started life as the commercially owned and operated Contender Bezant, a container ship. In 1985 she was converted to an aviation training ship at Harland & Wolff, Belfast, with extended accommodation, a flight deck, aircraft lifts and naval radar communications suites, say the Royal Navy.
Would a new, dedicated vessel be a better solution? Maybe.
Last year, a team of British military medics joined the USNS Mercy (the image above is the Mercy, with a silly bit of modification to the image, of course) to deliver health care and aid to Asian and Pacific nations.
According to a press release issued by the Royal Navy at the time:
“It’s only the second time Brits have taken part in the deployment. Back in 2016, five RN dental personnel spent five weeks treating the mouths of Vietnamese and inhabitants of the Republic of Palau. Two years down the line and not only is the UK involved in the mission, it’s in charge of half of it.
Peter Olive, who’s previously commanded frigate HMS Argyll and minehunter Ledbury, is the deputy commander of Pacific Partnership – the first time in its 13-year history that a Brit has been given the role. Captain Olive will take charge of the other ship assigned to the deployment, the fast-cat ferry USNS Fall River.”
The Mercy is a converted oil tanker, typically crewed by 70 civilian and military personnel – rising to nearly 1,300 souls on front-line operations. The vessel has beds for 1,000 patients – making her similar in size and with all the facilities you’d expect to find in a major city hospital.