Trials of drones delivering vital medical supplies and funding for freight services have been announced in a multimillion-pound package to protect the the UK’s supply chains during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ministers said the cash injection will ensure the critical supply of goods into and around the country during the Covid-19 lockdown, while thousands of volunteers are on standby to aid frontline services.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said up to 31 supply routes are eligible for support, with up to £17m available for those between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and up to £10.5m for ferry and freight services to the Isle of Wight and Scilly Isles.

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The department added the new trial of drones between the mainland and St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight will “help ensure it is equipped to tackle the virus”.

Further support is available for critical routes between Britain and European member states – including the Channel Tunnel. Light rail systems in Manchester, Sheffield, the West Midlands, Nottingham and Tyne and Wear will also be given government support.

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said a new Transport Support Unit will see thousands of volunteers and vehicles placed on standby to assist frontline responders during the crisis.

Speaking on Friday, the transport secretary said: “Essential supplies are continuing to flow well, but operators are facing challenges as fewer people travelling means less capacity to move goods.

“Today’s action will help ensure all parts of the UK have the capacity they need and, following on from our action to support the rail and bus sectors, it shows how this government is acting to protect the transport links the country relies on.”

“Now more than ever we need to work closely together, and the new Transport Support Unit stands ready to help our frontline staff and deliver crucial supplies,” the cabinet minister added.

Separately, Mr Shapps told the daily Downing Street press briefing that spare transport capacity could be used for logistics, with coastguard aircraft to assist with transporting patients and medical supplies to hospital.

Vehicles from Highways England will act as mobile coronavirus testing units, with Network Rail offering its regional distribution centres to help the effort.

Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said the support package “left more questions than it’s answered”.

“Few will be convinced that this secures jobs and the long-term viability of key transport sectors, essential for any future economic recovery,” he said.​

The Confederation of British Industry’s director of infrastructure, Tom Thackray, said: “The government’s decision to stand behind the main operators in the roll-on/roll-off ferry sector and Eurotunnel at this difficult time acknowledges the vital role these services play ensuring essential goods reach the UK and the island of Ireland.

“These routes are the lifeblood of local economies so this support is very welcome in communities throughout the UK. These routes are critically important at this time for the movement of goods, including food and medical supplies.”

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