More than 300 British troops will leave Sierra Leone in the coming weeks – halving the strength of the Armed Forces’ medical mission in the ebola-hit country.
The remaining soldiers will stay until there are no more cases of the deadly disease, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon insisted – even if it takes until the end of the year.
Around 700 troops and a medical ship were deployed to the West African nation in October to help the country battle the outbreak.
Around 700 troops and a medical ship were deployed to the West African nation in October to help the country battle the outbreak
More than 300 British troops will leave Sierra Leone in the coming weeks – halving the strength of the Armed Forces’ medical mission in the ebola-hit country. Michael Fallon is pictured talking to servicemen
The ship – RFA Argus – carried medical supplies and three cargo helicopters that have been used to reach more remote corners of Sierra Leone. But the Argus will sail back to Britain with half of the troops next month.
Mr Fallon, who toured the ship this week, said: ‘We are now getting on top of ebola – the number of cases are dropping away.
‘I shudder to think what would have happened if we had not put that effort in. We could have seen that plague spreading out of West Africa, spreading across the continent and, indeed, spreading into Europe and threatening us back in Britain.’
Sierra Leone is the UK’s biggest military deployment – but from next month the numbers deployed to combat Islamic State jihadists will be higher. Civilian contractors will help the remaining troops in Sierra Leone.
More than 11,000 ebola cases have been reported there in the past year. The latest figures show 76 new cases in the first week of February.
Yesterday an NHS worker evacuated from Sierra Leone at the weekend was being monitored in a British hospital after being splashed in the eye with bodily fluid from a victim.
Mr Fallon said the President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, told him the country would not have been able to ‘get on top’ of the disease without the UK, adding it was a ‘game changer’.
RFA Argus (pictured) has been vital in providing support to communities onshore in the region
He told crew of RFA Argus: ‘You have given this country the reassurance that it needed, you have prevented panic and in return of course you have prevented this disease from striking the streets of Britain.’
He said he was ‘proud’ of those on the ship, including those ‘returning home next month’, who had been working over Christmas to tackle the disease.
RFA Argus has been vital in providing support to communities onshore in the region.
There are also six British-funded medical facilities across Sierra Leone, which UK troops, health workers and aid workers are helping to run.
Those 300 or so on the ground will remain until the fight against Ebola has been won, Mr Fallon said.
But those on the ship would return home, leaving the remaining work to civilian contractors, it is understood.
He told the Mail: ‘It is far too early to claim victory over Ebola and in the last few cases it becomes much harder because people get complacent.
‘We’ve got some very hard weeks and months ahead. Five cases is too many – five cases can lead to a sudden explosion again.
‘We will keep rotating the brigades through until we can absolutely say Ebola has been defeated.’
He added: ‘We could be here until the Autumn, we could be here until the rest of the year.’
District coordinator Raymond Kabia, of the area of Port Loko, where British troops have been working, said: ‘We are going through a bumpy landing. Out of the 11 chiefdoms, only two still have cases of Ebola.
‘We certainly hope that by the first and second week of March we should be completely free of Ebola in this district.’
The remaining soldiers will stay until there are no more cases of the deadly disease, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon (pictured) insisted – even if it takes until the end of the yea
He said the district had gone from seeing 80 new Ebola cases a day down to just one or two after the British came in to help.
He added: ‘We hope that before the UK leave, that process of flushing the sick people out will be complete and I am sure before they leave it will be.
‘They leave us with zeros and we are going to stay with zeros. The first two weeks in March we should be zero then and the British can leave then.’
Speaking from RFA Argus, Captain David Buck said: ‘I think there is a willingness amongst the Sierra Leone people to recover their country when this is all over and so in the military we are looking to gradually regress and transfer that responsibility to civilian means.’
He said the ship had ‘provided visual reassurance for the people of Sierra Leone’.
Earl Kingston, 37, Cornwall: added: Throughout my career, I have done anti-piracy, I’ve done anti-submarine, I’ve been in the Gulf..
‘It was very, very different but certainly it was the most rewarding deployment I have done by a long way.
Speaking of the departure, he added: ‘As we start to drawdown and we return home then it will become more autonomous with a civilian community.
‘As the military we have taken a back seat and we have provided the logistics and now we are just going to hand over to the civilian contractors who will take it on from there.’