Medical supplies and personal protective equipment will be delivered to NHS workers on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus after arriving via a special charter Virgin Atlantic flight from Shanghai.
The Boeing 787-9 aircraft carrying the shipment, which includes respirators, ventilator parts, masks, scrubs, eye protection and aprons, touched down at London Heathrow on Friday afternoon.
There were more than 350,000 items on board the plane, manned by seven pilots and four cabin crew who are still working as the airline continues to carry out cargo operations during the coronavirus pandemic.
It is the first time since its launch by Sir Richard Branson in 1984 that the airline has only run cargo flights, after travel restrictions and lockdown measures around the world began to cripple the industry.
Peter Norris, chairman of the airline’s majority shareholder, Virgin Group, has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to sanction an enormous £7.5bn bailout to help airlines get through the crisis.
Airbus, Rolls-Royce Holdings and Heathrow Airport have also written separately to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, urging the government to “do all it can to support Virgin in these extremely difficult times”.
But Chancellor Rishi Sunak has told the aviation industry they will only receive taxpayer aid “as a last resort”.
In a letter seen by Sky News, he told the aviation industry that the array of emergency COVID-19 support schemes announced by the Treasury in recent weeks would provide significant assistance to cash-strapped airlines.
Among the aid promised are grants to cover employee wages, although Virgin Atlantic has already asked staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave over the next three months.
However, the airline says it will still carry out cargo flights to “support vital supply chains around the globe”.
The flight from Shanghai to London was put on with Virgin Unite, which is Virgin Group’s not-for-profit foundation.
President and chief executive Jean Oelwang said: “Millions of first responders, nurses, doctors and other NHS staff are working tirelessly day and night on the frontlines of this crisis.
“They are the true heroes in this crisis – and so we are humbled to have the opportunity to get this much needed equipment to them.”
Supplies of key equipment like ventilators and protective gear has been one of the biggest challenges for the UK government since the pandemic began.
Earlier this week, an NHS doctor told Sky News that the situation was so desperate that his GP surgery has had to appeal to its own patients for donations.
Airbus has since announced it has provided 400,000 surgical masks to the NHS, which were picked up from its Broughton plant in Flintshire, north Wales, on Friday after being flown in from China.
And Sky News has learned that the founder of JD.com, China’s biggest retailer, is also donating millions of items of medical equipment to the NHS – including 50 ventilators and five million medical masks.
Speaking at the daily coronavirus news briefing on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock again repeated the government’s insistence that it was ramping up supply of such equipment.