Skip to main content

Troop Deployment: West Africa

Volume 586: debated on Monday 20 October 2014

4. What the timeline is for deployment of British troops in west Africa; and if he will make a statement. (905516)

11. What contribution armed forces are making to tackling the spread of Ebola; and if he will make a statement. (905524)

The armed forces are making a significant contribution in tackling the grave threat posed by Ebola in Sierra Leone. RFA Argus, which left Falmouth on 17 October, is due to arrive off Freetown by the end of this month. Approximately 750 UK armed forces personnel will be in Sierra Leone by the end of October. Those personnel are supporting the Department for International Development-led effort and will initially run a 12-bed Ebola treatment centre in Kerry Town for international health care workers; deliver up to 700 additional treatment beds; and set up and run a training academy primarily to train health care workers for those additional beds.

Given that Ebola vaccines are unlikely to be ready at scale before April and that in the meantime millions could have been infected, does the Minister agree that these kind of military contributions are absolutely vital? Will this country do whatever is necessary for as long as necessary and encourage other countries to do likewise?

Defence is indeed playing a significant role, supporting the Department for International Development, which leads Her Majesty’s Government’s £125-million mission to support Sierra Leone. The defence contribution to controlling the Ebola outbreak in west Africa—Op Gritrock, as we call it—is well advanced. The contribution is led by 2nd Medical Brigade and 104th Logistic Support Brigade. In scale, this represents the second-largest contribution to fighting the outbreak of any country in the world after the United States.

Britain has been at the forefront of handling the crisis. What steps have the Government been taking to encourage other countries to do as much as us? I am thinking particularly of France, where, in Calais, the authorities have lost control of the security situation, endangering themselves and putting us at risk.

Leaving Calais out of it for a moment, there is a need for the international community to do much more to support the effort against Ebola. That includes a need for an increase in spending, and for more support for international personnel working in the region. We recently held a donors conference in London for our international partners. The Ministry of Defence has engaged widely, securing assistance from Norway, Canada and the United Arab Emirates, among others. We urgently need to upscale the international response. EU Foreign Ministers are meeting today in Brussels to discuss this very issue, and the forthcoming EU Council will be a vital forum for us, if we are to take this work forward with our partners.

The families of personnel deployed to west Africa, although undoubtedly supportive, will naturally be concerned about their family members’ well-being, given the virulence of the disease. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the health of personnel deployed to west Africa is a prime concern for his Department, and that all necessary resources will be made available?

Yes, I can. We take the safety and well-being of our personnel extremely seriously. Anybody, be they military or civilian, deploying to Sierra Leone must meet specified theatre entry standards before being allowed to depart from the UK. That includes a specific Ebola threat brief. I recently visited 22 Field Hospital in Strensall in Yorkshire, and witnessed the staff’s rigorous training, and their professional approach to safety in their preparation. Nevertheless, given the nature of the disease, there will always be some element of risk, so I hope that the whole House will join me in wishing our brave personnel good luck and Godspeed.

Will the Minister explain to the House what provisions are being made in Sierra Leone to make sure that the treatment facilities that he described, which are being put in place by the British armed forces, remain secure?

We are providing up to 700 beds for the treatment of Ebola-infected patients and, critically, a specialist 12-bed facility to treat health care workers, should any unfortunately become infected. That second element is a magnet, because we must recruit more health care workers to go to Sierra Leone to help fight the disease. I am extremely proud of what our military personnel are doing, and the whole country and the House can be proud of them, too.

Last year, the cost that the RAF incurred in supporting the operation in Mali was picked up by an urgent operational requirement, yet an answer last week showed that the cost to RFA Argus had been met by the Department for International Development. Why the difference?

DFID is leading on this operation. It has a clear lead, working with international partners. We in the MOD are supporting the DFID strategy. It is DFID’s lead, and it is paying for this.

I welcome the fact that the troops have already left, and Members from across the House will have every good wish for the safety and success of the operation. Will the Minister say how many more troops are expected to travel to Sierra Leone in the coming weeks, how quickly we can get them there, and how quickly, once they are there, they will become operational, bearing in mind any extra training that they may need?

I thank the hon. Lady for her bipartisan support for this vital mission, which the whole House will welcome. As I have already outlined, we will have around 750 troops in theatre by the end of this month. We will continue to keep the situation under review, and if further resources are required, we will of course consider that, but I reiterate to the House that we already make the second-largest commitment to the area, and we need to get our international partners to do more. We are doing our bit; we must get our international partners to do theirs.