Up to 20 tonnes of UK aid is on its way to help those caught up in the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai in south-east Africa.

Across Mozambique it is estimated that 1.8 million people have been affected by the cyclone, which also ravaged parts of Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Aid being delivered by an RAF aircraft is expected to include solar lanterns, water purifiers and shelter kits, the Ministry of Defence said.

The A400M Atlas aircraft, which took off on Sunday, will help provide relief for the 37,500 people in need of urgent shelter, amid reports that at least 17,400 homes have been destroyed by the cyclone and subsequent flooding.

Unicef’s executive director Henrietta Fore has said it is a “race against time to help and protect children”.

She tweeted: “We’re assisting those sheltering in schools, setting up emergency medical tents, helping reunite separated families, and looking after orphaned children. Things will get worse before it gets better.”

Mozambique Cyclone
An aerial photo shows a damaged factory following the cyclone in Mozambique (AP)

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Our partners across the globe can count on our Armed Forces to lend a helping hand in times of need, which is why are sending an RAF aircraft to assist with the aid relief.”

The UK is also sending forklift trucks and other equipment to help quickly unload aid from planes and cut the time it takes to get relief items to those in need, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced on Friday.

That flight, which left from Doncaster-Sheffield airport for Maputo in Mozambique on Sunday, is in addition to a flight containing more than 7,500 shelter kits and 100 family tents which arrived in the country last week.

Ms Mordaunt said: “The UK Government was one of the first to respond to this crisis and is currently the biggest global donor to the response.

“It is doing all it can to provide life-saving help to the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless or without food by this devastating cyclone.”

A UK team of five health and emergency response workers also left from Heathrow on Sunday to work with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Ministry of Health in Mozambique.

Led by Jon Barden, who works for the Department for International Development’s Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations Team, they will work to assess health needs amid fears of an outbreak of cholera.

Mr Barden said: “Many hospitals and clinics have been destroyed by the flooding. As the rescue efforts increase, those that are still open will have been overwhelmed by people who urgently need treatment.

“Survivors may be suffering from illnesses such as dehydration and diarrhoeal diseases, as well as injuries from the cyclone. Many of them will have had no fresh water and lack shelter and lack access to food.

“We will be assessing what health support the UK can offer the Ministry of Health, WHO and other partners in the critical first weeks of this disaster.”

The UK’s total support for the survivors of Cyclone Idai now stands at £22 million, including £4 million of aid-match money for the Disaster Emergency Committee’s appeal.

Eight million pounds was raised in the first 24 hours of the DEC’s appeal, including personal donations from the Queen and Prince of Wales.