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Covid-19: Preparations and Support

Volume 683: debated on Monday 2 November 2020

What preparations his Department has made to support the NHS and other public bodies with their response to covid-19 during winter 2020-21. (908017)

What preparations his Department has made to support the NHS and other public bodies with their response to covid-19 during winter 2020-21. (908023)

What preparations his Department has made to support the NHS and other public bodies with their response to covid-19 during winter 2020-21. (908029)

As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has supported NHS trusts in a variety of ways, with the distribution of personal protective equipment and diagnostic equipment, the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals, and service personnel to conduct testing. We have established a winter support force of approximately 7,500 to ensure our continued support throughout the winter 2020-21 period.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about the armed forces using their logistical expertise in helping to combat the virus. However, can my right hon. Friend assure us that that will not come at the expense of the armed forces’ vital work defending the nation?

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I have ensured both that we have supported our colleagues across Government in tackling the virus, and that our critical defence outputs have continued to be fulfilled every single day. The continuous at-sea deterrent, our Royal Air Force quick reaction alert force and a range of other critical capabilities, and our operations, have all been and will continue to be safeguarded.

Our armed forces have been instrumental in testing for covid-19, and soon they will be supporting the roll-out of mass testing in Redcar too. Does the Minister agree that in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, we should focus not just on the loss of life in battle but on the commitment our armed forces make to serve our communities every day?

Throughout the covid support force, the armed forces have committed personnel and time and effort in helping the rest of government to meet this challenge, including local government.

With regards to remembrance, despite the covid-19 restrictions in place this year, every effort will be made to ensure that the occasion can be marked appropriately and that the contribution of our service personnel is recognised. We should all take time this week to reflect not only on the sacrifices of past conflicts, but on the sacrifices of and work that our armed forces personnel are doing right now all over the United Kingdom in making sure that this country gets through the worst of covid.

The role played by our forces in the construction of the Yorkshire and the Humber Nightingale hospital in Harrogate was very impressive. They brought engineering, logistical and organisational expertise to the project, working alongside the NHS trust and Harrogate convention centre. Will my right hon. Friend focus on the additional, complementary skills that our forces can bring to combatting this virus, particularly the speed with which they can act and be deployed?

My hon. Friend highlights the important effort that the military made in setting up the Nightingale in Harrogate. I visited it during the set-up time, and it is also welcome that that Nightingale has been used for other NHS tasks, which is an important step in building NHS capacity where it is under pressure elsewhere. Of course, we should make sure that we always bring to bear the best of our armed forces to help wherever we can right across the board. Resilience is Defence’s middle name, and it is that key part of our skill that we are bringing to support most of government across the country.

We welcome the recent Government announcement from the other place of the 7,000 personnel who will be brought to readiness ahead of the winter period. In light of that, does the Secretary of State agree that Government should keep the House regularly updated on the numbers of personnel being deployed, how they are being deployed, and if any further strengthening of the numbers of personnel deployed will be necessary as we progress through the winter period? Can he provide an update now?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because I am very happy to inform the House on a periodic basis, perhaps every two weeks or weekly, of the MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—tasks that are being fulfilled. I can place that in the House of Commons Library. In the previous lockdown, we committed more than 10,000 troops. The number is 7,500 at the moment, but we always keep that under review. During the last lockdown, we actually only used at most about 4,000 or 5,000 at any one time, but of course we stand by to help. At the moment, there are over 20 MACAs in place and being used, and as we speak, we are examining some significant asks from a number of local authorities.