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Armed Forces: Covid-19 Deployment

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

Before I call the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), I want to put on record our thanks to our armed forces for what they are doing during this pandemic. Personally, I appreciate it.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the deployment of the armed forces to assist civilian authorities in dealing with the continuing covid pandemic.

I thank the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for his urgent question and for the opportunity to highlight the vital role of the armed forces in responding to the pandemic.

The Secretary of State was pleased to commit himself in to updating colleagues about the latest developments on covid support by placing regular updates in the House of Commons Library, the first of which will be delivered today. I am also pleased that the shadow Secretary of State will be visiting Standing Joint Command later this week to meet in person the senior military leadership delivering the support across the country.

The armed forces are renowned for their planning skills, technical capabilities and ability to provide a rapid and effective deployed response. They are being put to good use yet again. At all times they are acting in support of, and at the request of, the civil authorities from every part of the United Kingdom. So far this year the Ministry of Defence has received 420 MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—requests, 341 of which have been covid-related. The armed forces have provided enormous support while themselves taking all appropriate covid precautions and while maintaining our critical defence outputs, ensuring that at all times they are protecting our country, our interests and our friends.

Our present support for the Government’s preparation for the winter period, including the covid-19 response, is one of Defence’s highest priorities. Defence has established a winter support force of approximately 7,500 deployable personnel, in addition to the many defence medics already embedded in the NHS and the support, when called upon, of our defence scientists in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Defence is currently supporting 41 MACA tasks, including assistance to the whole-town testing pilot in Liverpool and the Birmingham City Council drop and collect scheme. Personnel have previously supported activities such as the Nightingale facility construction, vaccine planning, personal protective equipment distribution and the staffing of testing centres. They remain ready to undertake further tasks.

Defence has made thorough preparations to contribute as requested to civil authorities’ responses through the MACA system and will keep the force elements held in readiness to do so under constant review, adjusting the capabilities provided to meet demand. The nation can be reassured, especially in this week of remembrance, that Defence stands ready, as ever, to support whenever, wherever and however required, and will continue to do so, for as long as is necessary.

Last Monday, ahead of the new national lockdown in England, I said to the Defence Secretary:

“If he is willing to make further use of the forces this time, this House and the public will back him.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 7.]

The Minister has said 341 MACA requests for help have been in place since mid-March. People want to know now what the plan is; they have a right to know and they have a right to regular ministerial reporting of such decisions, which would also help to build better public understanding and support for our military.

From Friday, 2,000 troops have been deployed to Liverpool, which is double the number we have posted in Afghanistan. Mayor Joe Anderson told me last night that they are delighted to have them, for their sheer numbers and their logistical expertise. He said they had set up 17 centres and had done 23,170 tests in just 72 hours. Is the MOD willing to agree similar MACA support for other local authority areas?

The city-wide testing, of course, is to find people with covid who are infectious, but asymptomatic, and then to ensure that they isolate and do not infect others. That requires regular, routine and continual testing. How sustainable is that deployment? When will the 2,000 troops start to be withdrawn? How scalable is the deployment? Which other cities and towns will also benefit?

The Minister said that 7,500 troops are already on stand-by as part of what he called the winter support force. Our adversaries will watch the extent to which our forces are focused on covid. Will the Minister therefore confirm that it has had no impact so far on forces’ training, standing commitments or capabilities to respond to conflicts and threats?

Finally, the Government have raised the whole country’s hopes with the news of the Pfizer vaccine, but it is vaccinations, not vaccines, that will protect people from the virus. Getting the vaccine to the point of vaccination requires storing and transporting it at minus 70°C. How is the military involved in planning for nationwide vaccination? Will the military be involved in its delivery? How soon will it start?

If the Government do now make more use of our armed forces to help fight covid, that will be widely welcomed.

I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s warm words of support for the wider tasks of the armed forces. I absolutely assure him and the House that all essential Defence tasks continue to operate, with the great professionalism and resolve of our armed forces, be that the continuous at-sea deterrence or quick reaction alert or our army deployments around the world. Clearly, we have had to take precautions; we have had to keep our troops safe and have had to ensure that they continue to operate. Those precautions have been put in place, but they have continued to meet the needs. Early on, we had to pause training. That has now gathered momentum again and I am pleased to say that we are seeing an increase in the number of people applying to join our armed forces, which is, I think, inspired by the work that they are doing in all our communities.

The right hon. Gentleman raised other points. What is the plan? We stand ready to support other parts of the Government. We work in partnership with other parts of the Government. As the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved Governments require our support, we are there to provide and assist.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman spoke to the Mayor of Liverpool yesterday. I hear constantly of the great work between Liverpool City Council, the local NHS and our forces who are assisting them in this process. I think the pilot is now at 18 test centres, with a large number continuing to be supplied as we work with the city council. However, it is a pilot, and we need to see what we can learn from it and test its effectiveness, which has been so far, so good. It is scalable, and as part of this programme we are talking to civilian agencies, the council and the NHS about how others can step in. Often, as in the case of the mobile testing units, the armed forces lead the way, but others may well come through if the Department of Health and Social Care and others believe that this should be deployed more widely across the country.

It is a long time since I served in the armed forces, but one lesson I took from my service was that headquarters command and control is absolutely vital during an operation. I note, when I look at what is happening on test and trace, that there are now four centres—the Joint Biosecurity Centre in the DHSC, the National Covid Response Centre, the covid taskforce in the Cabinet Office and the covid data analysis directorate—each with its own director general and none under a single enforceable chain of command. Given that the chain of command at headquarters level is vital, and that a three or four-star general would be required in a military operation, will the Minister please tell me whether the Government have at any stage asked the MOD to implement a chain of command and headquarters command and control for the whole of test and trace, to make sure that it is now co-ordinated and active? If not, why not?

It may be a while since my right hon. Friend served in the armed forces, but the Scots Guards’ loss is certainly our gain in this place. I thank him for his question. It is not for Defence to tell other Departments how best to deliver their tasking. We are there to support them, and I am proud of the support that we are providing, with liaison officers across Government and other Departments and hundreds of people embedded in local resilience forums, enabling a network of information and intelligence to be gathered and proper support and tasking to be done on the ground.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for tabling the urgent question. Like others, I put on the record the thanks of the Scottish National party to the armed forces for what they have done in this crisis, not least in my home city of Glasgow with the Louisa Jordan hospital.

May I ask the Minister two specific questions? Will he outline how many of the 341 requests he mentioned came from Scotland and, perhaps at a later stage, from where? On the vaccination programme that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, the Minister will recall that, at the start of this crisis, the armed forces being deployed across the country became an ideal opportunity for our adversaries to spread disinformation, which led to much panic buying in supermarkets and subsequent shortages of food and other items. Will he lay before the House—perhaps not today, but at some point—what the country can expect to see from the armed forces in a future vaccination roll-out, so that it does not catch us by surprise and, crucially, so that it cannot be weaponised against our fellow citizens?

First, I do not know the exact number of requests. I have actually asked, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact numbers, split between Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England. I know that we have been very active. In fact I recall, right at the very start of this crisis—when I was sadly unwell with the wretched thing and battling a high temperature and other symptoms—getting a call at four o’clock in the morning on a MACA request for a gentleman to be moved from Orkney down to what is probably the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That made quite an impression on me. It showed me, first, how lucky I was, all things considered—that gentleman was seriously ill; and secondly, how wonderful it is that we have professional armed forces, able at the drop of a hat to go and deliver and collect and look after people, wherever they are in our United Kingdom. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific point regarding the number of MACA requests coming from Scotland. We are delighted to work with the Scottish Government.

On the roll-out of the vaccines, I will not speculate on what role there might be for the Ministry of Defence. We obviously work with other Departments, giving logistical and planning support. We are there to help and to provide assistance, but we are still at the very early stages on the vaccine, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, so it would be inappropriate to speculate at this stage.

Given that planning for sudden, fast-moving events and surges is part of our military’s stock in trade, why have they not been more involved in planning since the outset, especially given the comparison with all those costly and failing private contractors?

I think the hon. Gentleman is aware that Defence has been involved from the outset on planning and logistics. At an early stage, Defence was called on, as it is regularly; we have had, on average, about 130 MACA requests a year for the past few years, and we are well used to working at a local level and a national level with partners across Government. There is a role for the military and a role they can pass on. For example, the military did a fantastic job working with our partners in Health to provide the mobile testing units, but it is appropriate that at some stage, when others get up to speed, we hand over that task in order to be ready to undertake the next role, which in this case includes the whole-city pilot in Liverpool.

NHS Test and Trace has grown from literally zero to being the size of Asda in little more than six months, and it would be difficult to imagine an organisation that has grown so quickly that would not be organisationally challenged. May I suggest that if the MOD has not been asked for headquarters capability, it should offer headquarters capability to NHS Test and Trace, as I am sure it would be welcomed with open arms?

I believe I am right in saying that we are indeed assisting NHS Test and Trace, and others; as required, we help with logistics, planning and support, and we are keen to do that. I will not stray into other Departments’ business, but the sheer scale of the build-out that my hon. Friend refers to is obviously. We have also moved our capability from 2,000 tests a day to more than half a million tests a day. These are huge challenges that have been undertaken by other Departments.

The Vice Chief of the Defence Staff has said that Defence should no longer be considered a “last resort option”, something that was formalised in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, which announced that

“we will place military planners in key government departments to give the military a wider and more formal role in supporting national resilience contingency planning.”

If that is the case, why have the armed forces been deployed in such a limited way throughout this pandemic?

At the high point, I believe we had 7,500 military personnel deployed in support of the civil power, so it has been a large-scale commitment by Defence, alongside our other tasks. We stand ready to respond with those numbers or more if required. The hon. Lady is right to say that we are always there to plan, assist and support, but we do so in response to requests, and I know she would respect that principle. Defence is always here to help and to be engaged, and there is a great trust from the British nation, particularly this week, when we think of what has gone before. We always respond at the request of the civil power and to support it.

May I ask the Minister to pay particular tribute to the science and to the scientists working at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and to the important role they are playing? As we see this increased visibility domestically from our armed forces, is it helping with the important task of recruitment into our armed forces?

There speaks a distinguished former Defence Minister; it is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in her place. I am glad that she has mentioned DSTL. On a whole series of tasks, from helping the Welsh ambulance service through to planning for a range of options that have come through to the military—including how we roll out modelling for a whole range of projects during the course of this pandemic—DSTL has done a first-class job. I am therefore delighted that she has mentioned it in the Chamber. On recruitment, what she expects has come to pass. We have seen a 13% increase in applications to join the armed forces in the year to July 2020, and retention has increased. That reflects the pride that people have in our armed forces. They see members of the armed forces doing such a valuable task around our country day in, day out, and they are responding in kind.

Greetings from the far north of Scotland. May I remind the House that a member of my close family is serving with the armed forces?

Many of our overseas armed forces personnel are working in an extremely challenging environment, owing to the present pandemic. May I ask what Her Majesty’s Government are doing on PPE and testing for these extremely hard-working people?

We thank the relative of the hon. Gentleman for his or her service in the armed forces. On PPE, all precautions are being taken. We have good advice from the Department of Health as to what PPE should be deployed, and we use that advice to ensure that we are consistently covid compliant. Members of the armed forces currently helping with the pilot scheme in Liverpool are being regularly tested, alongside the residents they are helping and testing. On overseas deployments, we always have a view to our own covid regulations and those of the host nations where we are serving. As a matter of routine, military personnel have a quarantine period before they go out to ensure that they are safe on arrival at their deployed station.

There can be no better week than this for all of us to take the time to recognise and thank the armed forces for their contribution. Does my hon. Friend agree that the reservists have also been playing an incredibly important role, and will he join me in thanking them for their contribution in the battle against coronavirus?

Absolutely. We are blessed in the armed forces to have reservists with tremendous capabilities, who have been able to provide their expertise and professionalism yet again. I absolutely pay tribute to those reservists who answered the call and came to support us.

I learned earlier in the pandemic that four MACA requests had been made from Northern Ireland; three were satisfied and a commercial alternative was found to the other. I am pleased that those applications were progressed positively without immature political interference from some members of the Northern Ireland Executive. Will the Minister confirm whether there has been a recent request regarding testing on a larger scale in Northern Ireland, and that, should there be, the MOD would respond positively?

I am very aware of the support that we have provided to Northern Ireland. We are always ready to support any area of the United Kingdom that requires our support and assistance, and are delighted to work together to get on top of this dreadful pandemic. Any requests made of the Ministry of Defence will be looked at in the usual manner; we would look to help, as always.

So much of the military’s work is done behind the scenes. It has been really helpful to hear today in how many areas they are already deployed in the fight against the pandemic, but will my hon. Friend assure me that the critical tasks for the defence of this nation are not being compromised by all the work that is being done for covid?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The military have a vast range of tasks, not only here at home but overseas. We have continued to operate throughout this period. Precautions have been put in place, but on key issues such as the continuous at-sea deterrent, the quick reaction alert and our forces overseas, the military have continued to maintain their outputs. Importantly, they have been able to continue to train, so we have the confidence that they will be able to provide those key defence tasks into the future.

I echo the shadow Secretary of State’s thanks for the professionalism of the armed services personnel and the help that my constituents have received. We in Liverpool really do appreciate it.

The mass testing pilot in Liverpool is due to be reviewed after 10 days to two weeks. Does the Minister accept that more time will be needed to meet the objective of testing everyone? If so, will he ensure that the pilot remains in place in Liverpool until the end of the national lockdown on 2 December, and that some armed forces personnel remain with us after that time to ensure that a smaller number of mass testing centres can remain open to enable us to keep on top of the virus?

I welcome the points made by the hon. Lady. If I may say so, we are really enjoying working with Liverpool—it is a tremendous team effort and I know that the armed forces are really proud to be part of it. Of course, many of them have been recruited from that area and are really enjoying being able to help their own friends and families and the communities that they know so well.

On the hon. Lady’s specific asks, it is not really for the Ministry of Defence to decide when is the right time for the pilot to come to a conclusion. We are there to provide support and assistance, and if that needs to go on longer, that will definitely be looked at, and I would think it will be looked at very sympathetically, because we want to make certain that there is a successful pilot from which we can take decisions and see whether it can be rolled out more widely. But that is a decision to be taken on the basis of the facts.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) in thanking our reserve forces and paying tribute to them for everything they are doing to assist the Government at this very difficult time. Reservists are ready to go anywhere at a moment’s notice, but will the Minister ensure that when they are mobilised for this deployment, consideration is given to the fact that they need to tidy up their affairs in respect of their jobs and family commitments?

My hon. Friend speaks from experience: he is a reservist who served in Operation Herrick, from memory. We try to do intelligent mobilisation—we try to engage with our reservists to see who is available and who might like to be involved, and those with specialist skills in particular invariably say, “Yes, call us.” We are working with our reservists and will always try to give a suitable period of time to enable them to balance family and work commitments. We are enormously indebted to those who step forward.

Today is Councils Can Day, so I am sure the Minister would like to join me in thanking local councils for everything they are doing to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. On that note, will he tell me what conversations he has had with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the support that the armed forces will be giving in our council areas, particularly to ensure that that support is co-ordinated and targeted where it is needed?

We are all grateful for the work that councils have done—be it Liverpool City Council or councils elsewhere in the country, they have had a huge task to meet. Hundreds of military advisers have been deployed through the local resilience forums, working with councils and other local authorities, and I assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to provide that support.

Let us head up to Lichfield—my word, we have the cathedral in the background—to Michael Fabricant, who is looking rather orange today.

Oh dear: I am worried that you say I am looking orange, Mr Speaker —it makes me think of Donald Trump.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister wants to be cautious about the vaccine, but the Department of Health and Social Care has acquired the rights to 350 million doses of six different vaccines. As we heard yesterday, one of those vaccines, from Pfizer, needs to be transported at temperatures under minus 70° C, although others do not. Whatever happens, it is a huge logistics problem. Now is not the time to be shy: the armed forces are very good at logistics and I strongly suggest that now is the time that my hon. Friend should be suggesting to the Government—and not waiting for the Government or other Departments to say to him—that the armed forces are ready to help with the logistics of the distribution of these vaccines and maybe even with inoculations.

My hon. Friend is never shy, and neither is the Ministry of Defence shy in being very proud of the capabilities that we have and can deploy. He is absolutely right in saying that those capabilities include logistics and support of that nature, and we are absolutely ready to provide that support as required.

The excellence of our armed forces in civil contingency operations, whether in support, service or strategic planning, is noted by us all.

In York, we have the medical services training centre. How is that being deployed at this time to make sure that our NHS is not overwhelmed this winter? How are we planning to ensure that the support is there when it is needed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I believe that there are 1,600 medics currently deployed and embedded in the NHS, and we will do all we can to support them throughout the winter period. I do appreciate her interest. We will continue to provide that support to the NHS in the months ahead.

This week in particular, we all remember with gratitude the price that so many service personnel have paid in time of war. I also associate myself with the thanks expressed by other Members for the work that the armed forces have been doing just now to protect us in the face of such a huge peacetime threat. The armed forces draw their personnel from every community of the United Kingdom, and every citizen in every part of the United Kingdom contributes to the cost through their taxes. Will the Minister tell us what measures are in place to make sure that the deployment of the armed forces just now is based on an assessment of where they can be most effective and where their efforts are most needed?

To reassure the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that we have ever needed to have that kind of discussion, because when we receive MACA requests, be they from Scotland or from elsewhere, we judge them on their merits, on where we can help and on where there is support that can be provided, and that is routinely honoured. It is not a case of having to ration support at the moment. I think I said earlier that 7,500 were deployed actively, but I think that was the number available. There are only about 4,000 who are actively deployed on the ground, which means that we always have that extra resilience built in. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if a request comes in from Scotland or elsewhere, it will always be very sympathetically looked at by the Ministry of Defence.

May I put on record my thanks to the City Mayor’s Office, to our director of public health, Matt Ashton, and his staff and to the skilled and expert men and women of the armed forces? This is the first mass testing pilot of its kind—a massive logistical effort in which the military are supporting the people of Liverpool. We warmly welcome our service personnel and, rather than have the likes of Serco plundering public money while failing the public, may I encourage the Minister and say that we want a response to covid-19 that is publicly led by the NHS, by public health professionals and by local authorities, and backed up by the logistical expertise of our armed forces where necessary?

May I echo what the hon. Gentleman said so accurately about the response that has been met on the ground by armed forces personnel? They have been really chuffed to see the way that people in Liverpool have responded—they have been coming in their thousands to be tested—and they are very grateful for the warmth of their support, and I thank him for reminding the House of that. They will be there to support this programme, but there is a well-founded MACA tradition that the military often lead and find ways of doing things, but then try to hand over to civilian authorities—to Liverpool City Council in the lead working, I suspect, with the Department of Health and Social Care—in the future.

Anyone who watched the briefing last night with Brigadier Joe Fossey could not but be impressed by the professionalism of the brigadier and his team in Liverpool. What extra capacity remains within the armed forces to help other council areas, particularly in the north of England including my Kirklees Council area—450 cases plus per 100,0000 at the moment—not only to help with the mass testing, but to support localised track and trace effectiveness?

I recognise the particular issues in Kirklees. I am glad that my hon. Friend has brought them to the House’s attention. What we are doing in Liverpool is obviously a pilot, a major undertaking, and we will see the success of that pilot and whether it has the scalability to be rolled out elsewhere. That is a matter for the Department of Health and others to opine on. On helping elsewhere in the country, the military led with mobile testing units. They were there in the first rank to ensure that testing got up and running. That has now been passed over, and now, I think, there are 620 testing centres around the country, so the Army has stepped back from that, but we stand ready to help in other ways if called upon by other Government Departments.

Hull now has the third highest seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 residents across English upper-tier local authorities. Test and trace remains a key part of fighting this virus. I am incredibly impressed to hear of the pilot that has happened in Liverpool, so does the Minister have plans to deploy armed forces in Hull and East Riding to help them scale up test and trace?

I am sorry to hear the statistics from Hull, which are indeed sobering, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). There is a particular project at the moment in Liverpool—a whole-city testing pilot. We are there to help and to respond to MACA requests. As a basic principle, we will often lead and show the way, and pass on our expertise and knowledge to civilian contractors, but fundamentally there comes a point where local authorities and the Department of Health and Social Care will wish to take on the responsibilities for the covid challenge from the military once it has set up processes and worked to establish first principles.

When the major generals removed liberties, Oliver Cromwell wondered publicly if even arming one in 10 would be sufficient to enforce it. Will the Minister assure me that the armed forces will not be used to enforce any coronavirus regulations?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that I know many fine major generals but I do not know any who would wish to return to the 1650s. I can also reassure him that there is no way that the armed forces will be used to enforce coronavirus regulations.

May I also express the thanks of my constituents for the work that the armed forces have been doing in response to the coronavirus pandemic? The Minister has already revealed to the House that the number of MACA requests has quadrupled this year, for understandable reasons. As we approach the end of the year, with the potential for a vaccine to be deployed and, it has to be said, some of the pressures that will be placed on the country as a result of Brexit, is he confident that all future MACA requests will be able to be met because he has the appropriate capacity?

First, I wish the hon. Lady’s constituents well at a difficult time, and I am glad that the military have been well received in her constituency. We are looking at how we scale up. We are always in the process of planning to see how we can get the extra resources if required and if called upon, so I have a great deal of confidence that we will be able to continue to meet MACA requests.

Following on from that question, there is no point in repeating what has been said many times this afternoon—that the armed forces act with superb professionalism—but the moment this crisis is over, we can be assured, judging by history, that the bean counters in the Treasury will be putting pressure on the MOD for further cuts. We saw it after the end of the cold war and the Afghanistan war, and it will carry on. Will the Minister give me an assurance today that both he and the Secretary of State will vigorously resist, with the help of No. 10, any further cuts in our armed forces?

I feel that I ought to declare an interest because I once served in the Treasury—I put that on the record—but I can absolutely reassure my right hon. Friend that decisions made on resources for the armed forces through the integrated review are made on the basis of threat. That is core to the work that we are undertaking, and I hope that he will take that reassurance.

I thank the Minister for his responses and put on the record my thanks to the Army and its personnel for what they do across my constituency and elsewhere. The British Army and Territorial Army detachments in Northern Ireland are drawn from both sides of the community—both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and nationalist and Unionist; they both serve in the same uniform. Will there be an opportunity for the British Army to assist, if it is called upon by the Northern Ireland Assembly? Can the Minister also assure the House that no soldier will be asked to go anywhere without the appropriate PPE and training to deal with people in these very difficult and different days?

We will ensure that all deployed personnel get the right PPE and take the right covid precautions. I warmly welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about how the armed forces represent the whole of our great nation right across the board. We are proud that that is the case and we are always working to ensure that it is the case. We will always stand ready to listen to any MACA requests that come in, and we will always look at those sympathetically if we can.

I should declare an interest as a proud patron of the Military Preparation College, which has an Eastbourne campus. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that there has been a significant increase in applications to the college, so inspired are young people by what they have seen of military service in our town—not least in May, when military personnel set up a temporary mobile site that enabled rapid testing of essential workers so that our hospice, our hospital and our care homes were all able to continue. Will he join me in thanking military personnel who have served in Sussex?

I should also declare an interest because I am a Sussex Member of Parliament. Those military personnel have done a terrific job, including, I recall, in May with the mobile testing unit. I am delighted to confirm what my hon. Friend says about to increased interest in the armed forces. As I say, recruitment is well up this year, as is retention, and I am delighted to see both.

May I put on record my gratitude for the work that the armed forces are doing in combating this global pandemic? It does seem that there are other countries that may be better organised in emergency management, so what lessons have been learned by the UK Government from how other countries have been handling the crisis?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. We always look at what other people do and how other people respond, but there has been a great well of support—as, indeed, came from him—for the work done by the armed forces, how they have responded to requests that have come in and how they have continued to assist other Departments in ensuring that we get the very best response in this country.

May I put on record the fact that this response to the pandemic has demonstrated the United Kingdom at its best? My local regiment, 1st Battalion The Rifles, helped the Welsh ambulance service with testing and First Battalion The Royal Welsh helped in Gloucester with the testing facility there, which I had the opportunity to visit. May I just probe the Minister a little further on the question the shadow Secretary of State and other Members asked about the vaccine situation? I think the Minister said that the MOD stood ready to help. May I ask if he has had any requests from civilian authorities to assist with vaccine roll-out and, if so, what those plans are?

My understanding is that work is being done on planning, logistics and how we would support the important role with a vaccine, but I really would counsel that this is still very early days on the vaccine, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday. We are ready to assist with logistics and planning—thoughts, preparations and logistics—but this is early days still.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for the chance to catch your eye.

I hope the message that the Minister hears today is loud and clear: we are absolutely proud of what our armed forces do, but, given their vast experience in emergency planning, crisis management and, indeed, strategic thinking, they are a vastly underused asset in the biggest crisis we have seen since the second world war. With what we face today, we have logistical challenges, command-and-control challenges, communications challenges and operational challenges. These are all things the armed forces can deal with, yet there is not a place for them at the quad, the top decision-making body dealing with this pandemic. Does my hon. Friend not think that is incorrect?

I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about the support that is provided by the armed forces. He is absolutely right that we have a vast array of areas where we can support and assist other Departments. However, as he is very well aware, the process is that the civil authority comes to us to request assistance, and we always stand ready to receive such reports.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.