The UK Forward Aeromed capability, commonly referred to as the medical emergency response team, has been called out around 480 times in Helmand province in the past year. As air evacuation assets like this are shared between coalition nations, not all call-outs will have been for UK personnel, as the team provides medical evacuation for UK and other international security assistance force troops, as well as Afghan security forces and civilians when appropriate.
I am sure that the House will want to put on record its appreciation for the dedication and professionalism of the members of the medical emergency response team, many of whom are civilians who risk their lives helping personnel who have been injured. One of the issues I am greatly concerned about is the capacity to rescue people who may have suffered spinal injuries from heavily armoured vehicles, and whether appropriate rescue and cutting equipment and release mechanisms for doors and roofs are available so that when people are removed further damage to their spine is limited. Will the Minister confirm that such equipment is available for MER teams?
We are not aware that there are any specific capacity problems. In fact, calls on the service over the past 12 months have been rather reduced from the level experienced in the previous 12 months. That reduction reflects both reduced kinetic activity in the area of operations and improved efficiency in the way in which the task is shared across Regional Command Southwest. I believe that the position has improved significantly, and that there are no specific capacity difficulties at the moment.
On Helmand, up until 2 February the UK Government had a clear position in Parliament, in NATO and with the country about a conditions-based withdrawal, and for the medical emergency teams and all our forces to return home and for the Afghan forces to take the lead on security by 2014. On that date the US Secretary of Defence announced a 2013 timetable for Afghan forces to take the lead and within hours the UK Government followed that timeline. What changed on the ground in Afghanistan in that week for the UK Government policy to change so dramatically?
There has been not been a dramatic shift of policy on the part of the US, ISAF or the UK Government. What the American Secretary made clear, as have the French, is that they will be accelerating the pace at which they hand to Afghanistan forces the lead responsibility, but there is no suggestion that the commitment of the ISAF countries is reducing or that the numbers are necessarily reducing. Simply, the speed at which the Afghan national security forces are developing is enabling them to take the lead more. The shift will therefore be more into a training, support and mentoring role, but that does not affect the overall strategy, and the Lisbon agreement among ISAF countries remains in place.