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Covid-19 Response: Defence Support

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2021

With permission, I will update the House on Defence support in the national covid response. As hon. Members are aware, I committed to updating Parliament on our efforts, and the Ministry of Defence has been submitting weekly updates on the work to assist our outstanding NHS and colleagues from across government as we fight back against this awful virus. We might not be on the frontline of this particular fight, but we are with them in the trenches—and, since late last year, in increasing numbers. In fact, Defence’s contribution to the covid response now represents the most significant domestic resilience operation in peacetime, with more personnel committed on UK resilience tasks today than at any time since the start of the pandemic. That is why it is important to now make a statement to the House detailing the breadth and complexity of those activities.

It is worth considering some statistics on what has been provided thus far. Since last January, Standing Joint Command has received some 485 military assistance to civilian authority requests—MACAs—some 400 of which are related to our domestic covid response. That is more than three times the average annual number. We currently have 56 ongoing tasks in support of 13 other Government Departments, with 4,670 personnel committed and almost 10,000 more held at high readiness, available to rapidly respond to any increase in demand.

As is well known, the UK armed forces have helped build Nightingale hospitals around the country and have distributed vital personal protective equipment, delivering more than 6 million items to hospitals and clocking up enough miles to circumnavigate the world 10 times. Personnel from all three services have backfilled oxygen tanker drivers, Welsh ambulance drivers and NHS hospital staff such as those deployed to Essex trusts this week. They have helped care assistants shoulder the burden in care homes and assisted testing programmes in schools and the wider community.

During Christmas, when the new variant of covid disrupted the border crossings, the military stepped up. While most of us were settling down for our festive dinner and break, the military were working with the Department for Transport to test hauliers crossing the English channel and clear the backlog. Approximately 40,000 tests have been conducted in that operation.

At all times, our people have shown fleet of foot, switching tasks as the occasion has demanded. While relatively small in scale, they have always had a catalytic effect. Our involvement in testing is a case in point. We deployed personnel to the city of Liverpool to support the first whole-town community mass testing pilot. The lessons learned along the way are now being applied in testing across the country, from Medway in Kent to Merthyr Tydfil, Kirklees, Lancashire and Greater Manchester. Only recently, I authorised the deployment of 800 personnel in Greater Manchester. Yesterday they began focused community testing.

The country is of course eager to see the roll-out of the largest vaccination programme in British history and the NHS is delivering vaccines to those who need it at unprecedented speed. Defence’s contribution has once again been primarily through planning support provided by defence logisticians applying their expertise in building supply chains at speed in complex environments. As Brigadier Phil Prosser, Commander 101 Logistic Brigade, said in the No. 10 press conference last week, this operation is

“unparalleled in its scale and complexity”.

As that operation has shifted from planning to execution and is now focusing on rapidly scaling up, Defence has been preparing to adapt its support to the NHS. Not only have we sent additional military planners to assist expansion, including in the devolved Administrations, but, following a request from the Department of Health and Social Care, we have established a vaccine quick reaction force of medically trained personnel who are assigned to the seven NHS England regions. They can be deployed at short notice in the event of any disruptions to the established vaccination process and can be scaled up, if required, by any of the national health services across the United Kingdom.

Throughout the pandemic, understanding the requirement has been Defence’s priority, in order to tailor-make the most appropriate support. That is why we have sent 10 military assessment teams to each of the 10 NHS regions and devolved Administrations. They are helping to assess the situation on the ground before formulating and co-ordinating the most effective response. For example, we currently have experts working at the newly reopened NHS London Nightingale, a hospital and mass vaccination facility that will help the capital handle covid-19’s second wave.

Defence’s efforts have often been very visible, such as providing critical support to our overseas territories. Just last weekend, the Royal Air Force delivered more than 5,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to British citizens in Gibraltar. We should not neglect our armed forces that are less visible, because their contribution is no less important.

Our planners are now embedded in local authorities, working alongside the regional liaison officers, providing critical command and control and logistics support. They know how to deal with deadly diseases such as Ebola and how to stay calm under pressure. Those cool heads have been pivotal, not just in co-ordinating efforts, but in assessing how and where defence personnel can deliver the best response.

I have mentioned the personnel we have deployed or that are held at high readiness, but the real number helping the nation to combat the coronavirus is far greater. We have in excess of 5,000 armed forces personnel and civilian staff supporting the covid response from behind the scenes, as part of their routine duties. Today, I want to pay tribute to those men and women. They include the hundreds of personnel in defence headquarters responsible for co-ordinating the covid support force. Among them are 100 staff of the MOD’s winter operations cell, a similar number working on covid planning at Standing Joint Command and 100 more facilitating covid operations as part of their regular jobs in the joint military commands. From the Defence Medical Services, we must not forget that we have more than 1,600 consultants, clinicians, nurses and trainees fully embedded in the NHS all over the United Kingdom and, as ever, they are working alongside their civilian counterparts, some of whom are also military reservists. At our globally renowned Defence Science and Technology Laboratory—DSTL—there are 180 scientists and technicians working across 30 different covid-related projects, supporting the Government’s scientific understanding. Meanwhile, our expert analysts in Defence Intelligence have studied how covid-19 spreads, and our procurement specialists have been busily supporting the acquisition of unprecedented quantities of personal protective equipment.

This has been a truly national and whole-force response, uniting regulars and reservists, soldiers and academics, sailors and civil servants, some of whom the Prime Minister met yesterday when visiting the Ashton Gate mass vaccination centre in Bristol. Yet, even as we respond to the pandemic, we must maintain our day job of guarding the nation from dangers at home and abroad. Despite the virus, troops continue to manage wider winter tasks such as flood protection, counter-terrorism and the EU transition. We have maintained our momentum in operations critical to security, whether striking terrorists in Iraq, deterring Russian aggression in the Baltics, supporting UN peacekeeping in Mali or maintaining our continuous at-sea deterrent. It goes without saying that the safety and welfare of our people is paramount. I can reassure the House that we have rigorous and robust measures in place to protect our personnel and to reduce risk to themselves and their families while carrying out their duties.

Let me assure the House that our armed forces remain resilient and ready to support the NHS and colleagues across all Government Departments. Now as ever, come what may, they stand ready to do their duty—however, wherever and whenever they are needed. I know that some colleagues are keen to see the armed forces take a more leading role, but I should make it clear that our constitution quite rightly ensures that our military responds to civilian requests for assistance. They act in support of the civilian authorities, but are always ready to consider what more they can do to provide that support. Together, we will do our bit to beat this deadly disease and help our nation get back to normality.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement and I welcome this direct update to the House. This is a chance for us all to thank and pay tribute to the 5,000 forces personnel, both regulars and reservists, who are currently providing covid assistance, and to the leadership from Standing Joint Command under Lieutenant General Urch. The Labour leader and I saw at first hand in November the professionalism and commitment that the team at Aldershot bring to this task. The public also welcome the important contribution our armed forces are making to help the country through the continuing covid crisis, from troops on the frontline building Nightingale hospitals, community testing or driving ambulances and tankers, to the planners, analysts and scientists behind the scenes. The military is an essential element of our British national resilience, and people can see this more clearly now than perhaps at any time since the end of national service. I trust that this will reinforce public support for our armed forces and help to redefine a closer relationship between the military and civilian society.

However, I detect a sense of frustration from the Secretary of State in his statement. The Government have been too slow to act at every stage of the pandemic, and too slow to make the fullest use of the armed forces, as I and others on both sides of the House have argued since the summer. During the first lockdown, the covid support force was 20,000 strong, yet fewer than 4,000 were deployed. The winter support force numbers 14,000, yet now, even with what the Secretary of State calls

“the most significant domestic operation in peacetime”,

just 5,000 are being used, with only 56 military aid requests currently in place. How many of the 14,000 troops does the Secretary of State expect to be deployed by the end of the month, as we confront the gravest period of this pandemic to date?

On vaccinations, it is very welcome that from this week the armed forces are finally being used to help deliver the nation’s No. 1 priority, the national vaccination programme. The Secretary of State has said that 250 teams of medical personnel are on stand-by, and yet only one in 10 is set to be posted this week to the seven NHS regions in England. When will they all be deployed and working to get vaccines into people’s arms? We in Labour are proud that Britain was the first country in the world to get the vaccine, and we want Britain to be the first to complete the vaccinations. We want the Government to succeed. Does the Secretary of State accept that military medical teams can do much more to help?

On testing, we also welcome the work being done across the UK to reinforce community testing, from Kirklees to Kent and in the devolved Administrations. Fifteen hundred personnel had also been provided to support schools with covid testing. Now that schools have moved to online teaching, what changes are being made to those plans? When infection rates come down, testing will again be vital to control the virus. Yet the £22 billion NHS track and trace service is still failing to do the necessary job. There is no military aid agreement in place for Test and Trace, so may I suggest that the Secretary of State offers military help to get the outfit sorted out?

Finally, I turn to service personnel themselves. MOD figures confirm that the average number of tests for defence personnel since April has been just 1,900 a week. With 5,000 troops now deployed on covid tasks in the UK and more on essential operations or training overseas, what system is in place to ensure that those personnel are tested regularly, and what plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that they are also properly vaccinated?

The challenge of covid to this country is unprecedented. Yesterday, the chief medical officer said that we are

“facing the most dangerous situation anyone can remember”,

so, if the Secretary of State seeks to expand the role of the military in defeating this virus, he should know that he will have our full support.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. First, on the issue of military willingness to engage, he knows we are of course incredibly keen and eager to offer whatever assistance we can. I will address his questions on the range of those subjects one by one.

One of the reasons why we invest in people as planners in the heart of Departments and local government is to ensure that we shape that ask as it develops and to ensure that we are dealing in the art of the possible, as well as with realistic deployment requests. Sometimes we get initial requests for thousands of people, but once we scale it down and work through what is required, it ends up being a couple of hundred.

That has been partly because some of the Departments or local authorities are not used to MACA. Funnily enough, Departments used to using MACAs, as indeed local government or the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government would be—local authorities that have had significant flooding in their time—will be used to that relationship, but for others this is a new experience.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the scale between the designated force and the force actually used. He is right to say that 20,000 were earmarked for the covid response at the beginning and that 4,000 to 5,000 were deployed. That was at any one time. As he knows, our forces work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we rotate many of those personnel through. Right now, 5,000 might be deployed at any one time, but people will be earmarked to become much more ready—in a higher state of readiness.

To be at 24-hour readiness, or ready within a few hours, places a huge demand on anyone—in effect, to be sitting in your house or barracks waiting to be deployed—so we rotate the forces through the different readiness stages. One stage might be to be ready to move in 24 hours, one might be with three days’ notice or one might be with one week’s notice. Those different readiness stages mean that they can either get on and do their day job, or basically just stand and wait. Therefore, of a force of about 14,000 who are currently earmarked, yes, we have 5,000 today, but I suspect that by the time we have got through this phase—if all demands remain the same—somewhere between 10,000 to 12,000 of those 14,000 personnel will have been used at some stage on the covid response. The 5,000 who are on today will come off, get a period of rest and build-up time with their families, and then come back again. The force has a fixed amount in terms of where we draw the different readinesses, but the deployments are drawn through that process. Of course, all armed forces personnel are able—“available” would probably the wrong word—to help the Government in their resilience and defence; that is obviously the purpose of their job.

We have over 100 people in the planning process for the vaccination roll-out across the whole United Kingdom: in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. We also currently have 21 quick reaction vaccination teams, who are usually staffed by a doctor, some combat medics and nurses. Their job, in a team of six, is to deploy as required. We are holding 229 teams in reserve, should we wish to deploy all 250. The limiting factors at the moment will be the delivery schedule and timetable of the vaccines themselves; of course I could deploy 100,000 soldiers tomorrow, ready to vaccinate, but if the stock is not there, we would be better off deploying them in other ways.

The Government are very keen, and the Prime Minister is determined, to ensure that we match the pace of stock delivery with the pace of delivery into people’s arms—the jabbing. We are very clear that we can do more to assist. The Prime Minister knows that and has indicated that we will be called on as the NHS requires, but we should not forget that the NHS is also recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers, former clinicians and former nurses who are able to do the vaccinations; it is not a purely military response.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question on testing and tracing, we have had a one-star within the organisation of test and trace from very early on. We originally earmarked 1,500 personnel for schools testing. We have reduced that down to about 800, who stand by to help not only where needed in the schools that are currently taking key workers’ children, but also with talking to people, through webinars and other remote methods, about how to administer lateral flow tests. We stand ready to do more if required. We have scaled the number of personnel down slightly simply because of the school closures, but we stand ready to increase that number if required.

Let me turn to the personnel themselves. When they deploy on a MACA task, such as the 800 personnel deployed to Manchester, they will be tested before they go and throughout the process. They will abide by whatever the current NHS guidelines are: if they feel ill, they should get a test; and if we feel that they are going in front of people who are vulnerable, we will also take steps to test them. If people test positive, they are very quickly isolated. I can get the latest figures for the House, if that helps. The lateral flow tests have opened up a huge amount of much more easily accessible testing to do that.

I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s support of our Defence. I assure him that both the Prime Minister and I are determined to lean into this problem, and to maximise our efforts wherever we can. Wherever we see an opportunity, instead of waiting for an argument about who does what, we offer to do it. That is why only recently the House will have seen us fly out those vaccines to Gibraltar. We put them on a plane, get them out there and get it done. We can have all the arguments we want after the fact; let us get on with it. We are all—I know this includes the loyal Opposition—united in working to help deliver this. Defence is doing its bit, but we should not forget that it is doing its bit alongside the amazing people of the NHS, who are on the frontline in their tens of thousands, day in, day out.

Order. We have one hour put aside for this statement, which I can extend slightly, but not by too much, so I ask colleagues to ask brief, succinct questions and to provide fairly brief answers.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know that I have not always been uncritical of the test and trace process, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Yesterday, a member of my team had occasion to take a covid-19 test at the Birchington-on-Sea village centre in North Thanet. That centre was staffed by soldiers of the Gurkha regiment. Those attending report that their conduct was exemplary, they were courteous, patient and efficient, and the test results were recorded in short order. Will my right hon. Friend convey my thanks on behalf of my constituents to Brigadier Phil Prosser for all the work that these and thousands of men and women in the armed forces like them are doing in the war against the pandemic?

My right hon. Friend is very kind to say what he said about the efforts in Kent. We have 360 personnel supporting Kent County Council with lateral flow testing, and he will have seen that considerable number in the problems over Christmas. I will pass on his thanks to Brigadier Prosser, but of course, Brigadier Prosser is the lead on the vaccine. We have a number of other senior military personnel leading in different areas, including test and trace and building NHS capacity; Brigadier Lizzie Faithfull-Davies is the lady in charge of the military response on that. What is amazing is that these military personnel joined to be soldiers and to be Navy, and they do what they are doing today with the same professionalism and enthusiasm as they would do their day job. That is a tribute to the training and the quality of personnel, including, of course, the Gurkha regiment to which my right hon. Friend refers.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It was only right that he took the time to outline all those within the defence community, whether on the frontline or not, who are working so hard and so professionally to get us through the pandemic. On behalf of my party, I thank each and every one of them for the work that they have done. Because of their professionalism and the way in which they have carried out their job, the Secretary of State comes to the House with a good story to tell today.

I want to press the Secretary of State on two issues, starting with vaccinations. Could he adumbrate exactly where those in defence who are working on covid stand in the queue for receiving vaccinations? Can he give us an idea of how many have been vaccinated so far?

My second question is much broader, and it concerns the issue of resilience, which the Secretary of State knows I am keen on. If we are to do resilience properly, it cannot just be the preserve of the Ministry of Defence; I know he understands that. Can he tell us how the pandemic and the lessons from it as far as resilience is concerned will be reflected in the integrated review? If he can go one further and tell us when that might be published, I will even buy him a dram when we are next allowed to.

I think I should go for the easy one: the current target date for the IR is the first two weeks of February, so we will go for a half on that. None of our defence personnel has received a vaccination; they are not in priority groups one to four. However, we are, as we speak, working out which key cohorts should be vaccinated in order to preserve and underline the nation’s defence. Obviously, they will get priority, but I expect it to be a small group at first, because protecting priority groups one to four is important.

In terms of resilience, one of the lessons is on reserves. The Scottish Government are empowered to create an NHS reserve if they wish to. That will be one of the lessons that we will draw in England and Wales. We use military reserves, but other Departments may start considering that as well, for those people who want to contribute to the reserve and the resilience of the nation. I am sure that the Scottish Government, under the devolved powers, are entitled to look at that, and I would definitely recommend it.

For the hon. Gentleman’s peace of mind, there are currently three personnel working in airlift—CASEVAC—in the Scottish Ambulance Service, 32 planners in the region to support community testing and vaccination deployment and 25 planners in the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland helping work through those problems. Of course, we stand ready for more. If more is requested through the Scottish Government, we stand ready to provide that assistance, to make sure that the whole of the British Isles and the United Kingdom get through this issue.

First, let me join the Secretary of State in thanking all the military personnel involved, in every way, for all they have done in this national effort. They are always ready to step up to the mark. Will he also acknowledge the huge contribution being made by St John Ambulance, which is training up to 30,000 volunteers, to the highest standard, to be vaccinators? Will he ensure that military planners and those on the ground work hand in hand with St John Ambulance, the Red Cross and the Royal Voluntary Service to maximise the contribution they can make?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Volunteers need managing, and although St John Ambulance is a disciplined uniform service, the huge amount of people being recruited to volunteer will need managing. That is certainly one of the areas where we think the military can assist the NHS, in terms of how we manage lots of volunteers to deliver at a productive and efficient rate things such as the vaccine. That is where we will find the military working hand in hand with others. It is another example of this not being just about the frontline or the front trench; often the skill we can bring is in looking after 200,000 or 50,000 volunteers and making sure they are used correctly, in the right part of the system. St John Ambulance will be able to deliver a very efficient group of volunteers, because that is its business and we look forward to working with it.

May I, too, express my sincere thanks to our United Kingdom armed forces for all that they have done? My vast and faraway constituency presents special challenges: the remoteness of where people live; an ageing population, which is statistically rather different from that of the rest of the UK; and the distance people might have to travel from far corners of my constituency to Inverness or Wick to be vaccinated. I hope that the quick reaction teams he refers to will be involved in helping my constituents to be vaccinated. Will he remind the Scottish Government that they are there to help and that, working together, we can give my constituents the security they need?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I know his part of the world very well, having represented Aberdeenshire, in North East Scotland, in the Scottish Parliament with him 21 years ago. He reminded me of that the other day—I had hair then! This is why at the beginning of this we deployed helicopters up to Kinloss to make sure we look after the highlands and islands, and we stand by ready to do that. Notwithstanding the fact that we have planners in the Scottish Government to help, we have not received a MACA request for the use of some of these quick reaction vaccine teams, but they are there for the taking if they are asked for; I am happy to support and sign off any such request. Obviously, some of the vaccine is coming from abroad and we need to distribute it to the fingertips of the UK.

Order. I wish to remind Members that we are halfway through the allocated time and we have got through only five people. May I therefore press colleagues to ask short, concise questions?

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department is working with the Department for Education to ensure that schools that must remain open, especially those in Rother Valley, have the support, guidance and materials they need to offer rapid testing to their staff and students over the coming weeks?

Yes. Although we had originally earmarked 1,500, we have scaled that down to 750 personnel ready to assist schools. Currently, we have deployed 84 to assist 52 schools and colleges, and they stand by all over Wales and England if that help is needed. If the Welsh Government request that support, we will be able to both provide support physically and help online to make sure that the staff can deliver the lateral flow testing.

It is tremendous to hear that the armed forces are playing their part in the roll-out of the vaccine across Great Britain and we thank them for that. However, the one part of the United Kingdom that seems to be proceeding without the same level of military assistance is Northern Ireland. If this continues to be the case, we will be missing the opportunity to alleviate critical pressures on hospitals, to speed up the roll-out of the vaccine and to lift the burden on GP services to both roll out the vaccine and keep general practice services functioning at the same time. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the MOD is ready and willing to accede to any request for support from the Northern Ireland Executive and whether such a request has been made by the Health Minister for Northern Ireland?

The hon. Lady will remember that, at the beginning, we did indeed devolve military assets to CASEVAC patients who were ill to England. Indeed, we had earmarked and agreed a MACA request for the use of defence estate at Kinnegar and Aldergrove at the time. We do have support, and have been preparing support, to allow NHS staff to refocus or to be released on to the frontline. We are awaiting that MACA request; we believe that there is one inbound. We will obviously accept any request and look at it on its merits, but from the point of view of the MOD, and of the UK Government, there is no specific bias towards any part of the United Kingdom. As the requests come in from the civilian authorities of the devolved Administrations, we are ready, willing and able to meet them.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the critical task of the defence of our nation and our commitment to NATO operations and exercises are not being compromised in order to provide this support?

No, our critical defence tasks are being maintained. At the beginning of December, I visited Estonia to see our forward presence, which is working alongside the Estonians. Our continuous at-sea deterrent is just that—it is continuous, as indeed are our air policing and our Navy deployments. We have not taken our eye off the ball when it comes to defending the nation, but at the same time this shows the importance of concurrent activity and resilience in being able to deliver other tasks that were definitely unforeseen a few years ago.

May I join the Secretary of State in thanking members of our armed forces for their work during this pandemic? I also thank MOD civil servants and those working at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The Government are quite rightly prioritising those most at risk in the vaccine roll-out, but what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Health and Social Care about rolling out the vaccine among our defence personnel who are working on defence-critical missions, such as maintaining our continuous at-sea deterrent?

As I said in reply to an earlier question, we have discussed this with the NHS. We are working on a list right now of who we can prioritise to make sure that we underpin the very important defence tasks. Core things such as the continuous at-sea deterrent will be included in those discussions. It is vital that it remains continuous. Also, as we go through priorities one to four and further down into the vaccine programme, we will consider key industries and key people who will help keep the country and defence going.

May I just echo what the right hon. Gentleman said? We often focus on the men and women in uniform, but defence is more than that. It is the scientists, the civil servants, the logisticians, the reserves and often the retired community and the veterans as well. I want to pay tribute to them, because they have been just as important in a large part of this process. I feel for the civil servants in the MOD, who can often get slightly forgotten in the narrative, but that does not mean to say that we forget them in the reality. They have been doing an amazing job as well. My civil servants have been working alongside our military personnel throughout this process.

The entire nation should be grateful for the adaptability of our armed forces, whether it be for the rapid building of the Nightingale hospitals, the roll-out of personal protective equipment, or help with track and trace. As we build up with vaccine deliveries the unprecedented task of vaccinating the majority of the nation, can my right hon. Friend set out what role the armed forces will play in that huge task?

As I have said right from the beginning, we are involved with the vaccine taskforce, making sure that we are on the frontline so that we can jump in and fill any gaps that emerge. We have set up a quick reaction force. Up to 250 people, and more if required, will be able to go out and take vaccines to people if that stock needs to be delivered. That could deliver a significant uplift in the numbers of people being injected. At the same time, we have people embedded in the regional vaccine offices of the NHS, where the NHS is planning how it will deliver the vaccine in the regions and, indeed, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, to make sure that, wherever there is a gap, the MOD will try to fill it.

Like so many, I am extremely proud to see our dedicated servicemen and women supporting the national effort to overcome the public health crisis. The overwhelming majority of Britons now see disease prevention as an issue of national security, so will the Secretary of State tell us how coronavirus is shaping the forthcoming integrated review?

From a defence point of view—indeed, I know this from my own background as the Minister for Security—resilience was key to the integrated review. I felt it was important that the integrated view should be used to enhance the use of reserves. Reserves will be part of the long-term future of this nation’s resilience—whether they are civilian reserves in an NHS environment or, indeed, from the armed forces, they are going to be very important. We need to look at how we employ our people to make sure that there is a flow between regulars and reserves and that they are used in a much better way.

In addition to that, we have seen the threat of silent or sub-threshold enemies—disinformation. We have already seen Russia deploy smears, innuendos and disinformation against our Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, at the same time as elements trying to steal secrets through cyber. That is an important example of how we have to be on our guard when our adversaries take advantage of natural disasters or natural phenomena. We have deployed and used the 77th Brigade throughout this process to challenge disinformation, which is obviously an appropriate use of that brigade. When a foreign country makes something up, spreads a rumour and tries to undermine us, we should challenge that.

All those policies are being proved in this pandemic. Members will see front and centre in the integrated review that resilience is one of the main things on which we must always focus if we are to defend the nation.

This is undoubtedly the greatest national emergency of my lifetime, yet only a small fraction of the available military capacity has been called upon by the rest of the Government—and that is despite the fact that the test and trace operations have been indifferent in performance and the vaccine programme seems to be to be almost entirely dependent on civilian capability that is tested every winter in the best of circumstances. Why does my right hon. Friend think that the Government, or perhaps the rest of the Government, are so confident that civilian organisations are capable of delivering these incredible tasks of such scale, magnitude, importance and urgency without significantly more military capacity, particularly in respect of four-star military capability at the top of these organisations, rather than just one-star?

I assure my hon. Friend that the four-stars and three-stars are equally busy. I just came from a meeting with a three-star and a four-star on the vaccines and the need to make sure that we are leaning in as much as possible. I understand what my hon. Friend says but, fundamentally, the armed forces have been making a difference. If there was more demand or, indeed, an easy way to deliver the solution to this pandemic, we would have been doing that.

It is not the case, when we talk about numbers in the armed forces, that they are sitting around not doing anything until they are called. My hon. Friend recently called for more assistance for the NHS in Essex. I looked at a number of requests that came in last week and the week before, and it was quite sobering to realise that of the 1,600 clinicians, senior nurses and nurses in the armed forces as regulars, they are all deployed—they are all working in hospitals in Middlesbrough, in the south-west, in Birmingham and in the south-east. They are all there, because even in peacetime—even when we are not fighting a pandemic—instead of having them sitting around, we make sure that they are working in the NHS and augmenting that time. In respect of some of the requests, we are in danger of robbing Peter to pay Paul: I would simply be taking clinicians out of one hospital trust to move them to another one. That is not going to solve the challenge that we have.

I understand what my hon. Friend says and can give him the assurance that I gave to the Labour defence spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey): we stand ready to do it. It is not like we sit and wait in our rooms waiting for a phone call; we push and, sometimes to the annoyance of some of my colleagues, I push and push and agitate—I am quite a good agitator—to make sure that we try and deliver wherever we can. The Prime Minister is absolutely open to all ideas and we deliver on many occasions.

The armed forces have played a prominent role in supporting frontline public health services in Scotland, and their support has been welcome. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with devolved officials prior to this further commitment of military personnel, and what discussions has he had since to ensure effective targeted allocations of personnel within communities and vaccination sites in Scotland?

I have not had numerous discussions with my Scottish counterparts because I took the decision at the beginning of this outbreak to devolve my authority and the asset to the professionals whom we have embedded in both local authorities and Ministries in the devolved Administrations so that they can just get on with their jobs uninterrupted. My military planners are sitting in Scotland with the Scottish Government and with the NHS, and the only barrier to them being used more is whether the Scottish Government choose to use the assets that are available. It is entirely up to the First Minister of Scotland whether she wishes to use more British military assets. I do not get in the way of it and I do not need phone calls with her; she has those people at her disposal. If the hon. Lady would like us to do more—she said a few months ago on Twitter that we should do more—I would suggest she raises it with the First Minister of Scotland.

Although our service personnel are already making a fine contribution, has my right hon. Friend examined which aspects of Israel’s efficient and highly successful vaccination programme involving her armed forces might be applicable to our own use of military medical resources?

One of the lessons—a bit like when the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) asked about lessons from the integrated review—is that Israel, like a number of European countries, has huge numbers of reserves or reservists. Slovakia or Slovenia, I think, almost mobilised its whole 3 million or millions of people, and Israel is very deep on reserves. I think, first, Israel has been able to mobilise people through its reserve capability, and I think that is one of the lessons; and, secondly, there is the element of 24 hours a day, seven days a week: how much more can we do, and how much more assistance can we squeeze into a day? That conversation is very live right now between me, the Department of Health and the Prime Minister. If we can do it, we will do it. I think, at the moment, the limiting factor is just simply the stock coming in, but as the stock of actual jabs picks up, I would expect us to push more and more on that or, indeed, to take the jabs to people.

Hospitals in several parts of the country are reporting concerns about oxygen supplies. Has the Secretary of State had discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care about the provision of armed forces support with oxygen supply logistics to ensure that oxygen is available for every patient who needs it?

Yes, right from the very start our drivers have augmented oxygen delivery around the United Kingdom, or certainly England and Wales. We continue to do that, and I think we have a number of personnel actually doing that right now. If there is more required, we will do it, and if we have to go and find more oxygen, we will go and help with that logistic chain. For Brigadier Prosser from 101 Logistic Brigade, one of the tasks of the Logistic Brigade is to help in areas such as oxygen supply.

Local authorities in Lancashire continue to benefit from the invaluable support our armed forces are providing in relation to mass testing programmes. However, I understand the existing deployment is due to be scaled down over the next few weeks, a decision that was taken before local infection rates started to rise once again. In the light of recent events, will my right hon. Friend consider extending the current deployment so that all local authorities in Lancashire, including those on the Fylde coast, can continue to benefit from this invaluable resource?

I have visited the north-west regional response and spoken to the Lancashire leaders and then the Greater Manchester leaders and the Mayor, Andy Burnham, on a whole range of these things. This is not due to be drawn down other than in that, as on many MACAs, we put a time limit on it to make sure we examine whether it should continue or whether we need to modify it and learn lessons. We will do whatever is required in Lancashire and the north-west to deliver an improved test and trace to make sure that we are taking the testing to the very people we want to find—where the infection is—because if we can find people with no symptoms but who are infected moving around the community and we can isolate them, then we can really help slow it down. At the same time, as my hon. Friend will know, one of the sites for vaccinations has opened in Blackpool, making sure that vaccination goes hand in hand with the testing.

I commend our wonderful armed forces personnel for continually putting their shoulder to the wheel in the midst of a national crisis. The mass vaccination centres require not just medical staff but logistical, clerical and steward staff to manage the huge flows of people every day. Does the Secretary of State agree that armed forces personnel could and should play a more significant role in providing those services, so that vaccination centres in local communities such as Slough and the roll-out mobile vaccination units have the resources that they need?

The hon. Member is right: it is not just the clinical touch. A vaccination process can take about 25 minutes. The actual time that someone is in front of a person with a needle and injected is three or four minutes; the rest of the time can be stewarding, keeping an eye on people and ensuring that they find the right places to go. His question is timely, because right now we are having a discussion with the vaccine taskforce and the NHS about how we can augment that to ensure that nurses and clinicians focus entirely on the clinical part and therefore the throughput can increase. We can help with such things as stewarding and, I suspect, marshalling all the volunteers.

My constituent Dr Sheila Fitzpatrick contacted me yesterday about her application to get into the process to be a volunteer vaccinator. She used the phrase: this

“needs the intervention of the military”.

I am sure she will have been pleased with my right hon. Friend’s statement, but can he explain how Army logistics can be used to ensure that those volunteering end up in the right place?

I am tempted to say that a good sergeant major will be able to fix a lot of that. It goes to the point that I made earlier: volunteers need managing and we need to work out their needs. Because they are volunteers we may be unable to lean on them as much to do the same number of hours. Also, we need to ensure that we match troops to task, as we call it, ensuring that the skillset is in the right place. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) asked the same sort of question. What we are doing at the moment with the NHS is discussing exactly how we can increase and augment that, because our skillset is often just that. The sergeant major will ensure that people are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. I never said no to my sergeant major.

I welcome the support of the military in the vaccine roll-out. I have a particular concern about delivery in rural areas. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that there is military capacity available, perhaps in the reserves, to operate in extreme conditions—for example in heavy snow in rural and, indeed, mountainous areas?

Yes. First, we have 100 personnel supporting the Welsh ambulance service and 92 personnel supporting the Welsh Government on the Welsh vaccination roll-out. Of course, one of the benefits of both the vaccine quick reaction forces and, indeed, the military personnel is that most of us did our training up in the hills of Brecon and Sennybridge and areas such as that, and are used to adverse weather. It is also why we are equipped to deal with it. That is one of the strengths and, I hope, one of the opportunities that the Welsh Government will take advantage of, if needed, to go down to rural communities, down the small tracks and to the hill farmers, to ensure that they get the vaccinations and the support that they need.

Will my right hon. Friend please join me in thanking our wonderful armed forces, particularly those based at Kendrew barracks in Rutland, who the Minister for the Armed Forces visited this week to see their vital contribution to defeating covid first hand? Following misinformation this week in Rutland and Melton, can my right hon. Friend please confirm that the military are not deployed anywhere in our country to enforce or police covid restrictions?

The military’s response is a response to help civilian authorities meet requirements. We have made it clear that enforcement is not our job. Our job is to help the police, backfilling to help to free up the police should they need to do more on the streets. Our main job is logistics, planning, mass—for example, for mass testing—and things such as helping to deliver the vaccines with our specialists.

The Secretary of State has rightly praised the armed forces and referred several times to reservists and the work that they have done, especially in dealing with testing at the border with France before Christmas and over the new year period. In that vein, will he reconsider his decision—and, indeed, reverse it—to cut the number of training days for reservists, as they are clearly hugely important to our response to the pandemic?

The hon. Gentleman will know, first, that training days may not necessarily align with the covid task and, secondly, that we have a budget to which we are obliged. There are significant pressures on the budget, and the record settlement that we have does not begin until next year. What we did not do was cut reserves—we cut down on some reserves days in this financial year. That does not take away from the future; it just means that we had to meet some of the financial pressures across the board. It is not the only measure that we took. It is a significant pressure, and that is why the record settlement that kicks in next year will help us to make sure that we have a much more holistic approach and a more sustainable deployment of our armed forces.

As supplies of the vaccine expand over the days to come, are the military ready to step up their participation in getting vaccinations out, particularly to our frail elderly so that they can have not only the first but the second dose and are protected from this terrible virus?

My right hon. Friend should be reassured. I have come from a meeting on exactly that: making sure that as the delivery profile of the vaccines increases there is no gap in delivery. If there is, we are designed, ready and standing by to assist in delivery and, in fact, getting ahead. One of the things about which a number of Members have asked are lessons from the integrated review: anticipation, better planning, longer planning, and making sure that we know what is coming next. Those are some of our strengths, and that is something that we can export to other Government Departments, and on the vaccines we are right at the centre of trying to do that.

I share the admiration for our armed forces that many hon. Members have highlighted, and I share frustration that the Defence Secretary and other hon. Members have expressed about the fact that many people allocated by his Department are not being utilised by the Government. Can he tell us whether there are other barriers that have prevented Government Departments from taking up this opportunity such as accommodation or other budgetary concerns? He can be assured that in Chesterfield we have many hotels that would be happy to accommodate members of the armed forces if they can help us to speed up the vaccination programme?

First, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when we deploy our armed forces we do our best to make sure that we are in the community. Many armed forces are helping in Greater Manchester and have been deployed in many hotels in the area. My experience over almost the past year has been that the driver for demand is often not as straightforward as people think. It is not a question of Secretaries of State picking up the phone and saying, “I want to send thousands of people there.” Demand is often driven from the ground up. It is often driven by local authorities or regional leaders, alongside regional NHS demand. That is what we have to remember. There are plenty of places that have managed within their own resources to deliver, but the trick is to make sure that we anticipate. As I said in an earlier answer, I think three or four months ahead. Historically, I do not think that most civilian Departments do so, and that is what the pandemic has taught us all: to think what is next. As soon as we solve today’s problem we should move on to think about the next one. 

On our response, for example, we said almost immediately to Ty Urch, the general in charge of the response, whom I congratulate on being knighted in the honours list: “You go back to the main job and the deputy will be the main liaison.” That is what we do well. There are no barriers to these requests and no barriers from other Departments either. Demand is being generated either from the ground up or from other Departments. That is when we see less or more, depending on what is required.

Across the UK, our armed forces are helping to fight this invisible and deadly enemy by supporting covid-19 testing. Led by Group Captain Andy Turk, personnel from RAF Valley in my constituency have been assisting local authorities in Manchester and Derbyshire. Our forces are doing so much for us during this pandemic, alongside their critical defence work, so can my right hon. Friend confirm when and how the vaccination programme will be rolled out to them?

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation issued advice on priority groups for covid on 2 December. Prioritisation was governed by evidence on the risk of increased death rates from severe illness rather than occupational roles. With the exception of Defence Medical Services—frontline healthcare workers who are engaged in patient care for those with specific vulnerabilities—the majority of defence people are not expected to be included in the initial roll-out. However, as I said earlier, we are working with the rest of Government to try to make sure that people who have key defence tasks are given priority at some stage after the first cohorts have had their vaccinations.

I pay tribute to the men and women of the RAF at Valley. They have done an amazing job, and not only out of area in Derbyshire and so on where they have been helping. That shows that this effort is not just about the Army. Yesterday the Prime Minister met members of the Navy involved in the vaccinations, and the RAF has been helping in landlocked Derbyshire as well. That shows that this is a multi-domain, multi-service effort.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the work of our military personnel—the frontline in this crisis—but what is their role, and that of Ministers, in setting the direction? How often does Cobra meet, and do they attend? He mentioned the constraint in stocks of vaccines. Is that not now the crux of the matter? What is holding us back, and what is being done about it?

First, we are not being held back. I think we have injected more people than anywhere in Europe—in fact, not so long ago, it was more than in the whole of Europe put together. We are almost in the lead on the number of people being injected, on a like-for-like basis. Nothing is being held back. The Government have placed the orders for enough vaccines for all of us over the period. At the same time, we are absolutely keen to step up to the plate to make sure that we get ahead of the problem, if there is a problem, and to deliver so that we do not have a problem. That is what we are doing right now. I am confident that we will get there. I agitate most days to make sure that we are in the room, and we are in the room. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces attends Covid-O—effectively the standing Cobra for covid response—almost twice weekly, if not more. We are always engaged in making sure that there is a planned Government solution to this problem.

I declare an interest as my partner is currently on operational deployment overseas with the Army. Closer to home, I want to thank Brigadier Andrew Dawes, the head of the Army in Wales, who has supported both the Welsh and UK Governments during the covid pandemic. From his base at the barracks in Brecon, he and his team have helped to crew ambulances and co-ordinate mass testing, and have now established a vaccination support force. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Brigadier Dawes and all the staff at the barracks for their immense hard work? Given the operational significance of the barracks, will he also commit to reconsidering the future of the headquarters of the Army in Wales?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s husband, who is doing the other part of the defence task, which is getting on and keeping our country safe at the same time as the rest of our armed forces are engaged in covid. I understand the concerns around the Brecon barracks and indeed the current headquarters of the Army in Wales. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement has been to visit. There will be an announcement shortly on the future of that location.

My constituency has traditionally provided significant numbers of recruits, particularly to the Army. Whether these soldiers are on the frontline against a military threat or a deadly virus, they deserve the best equipment we can provide. However, recent TV footage would seem to suggest that soldiers on frontline anti-covid duties are wearing what looks to the layperson to be pretty basic protective equipment. Can the Secretary of State confirm that all military personnel working in potentially covid-hazardous environments will be provided with protective equipment to the standards recommended by the relevant public health authorities?

Yes, all military personnel should be wearing, and be equipped with, PPE in line with the standards put out by the public health authorities. I know the hon. Gentleman’s constituency well—there is a defence industrial base there—and I know that part of Scotland well, and I know that not only do they deserve the best but that they deserve the support of the whole United Kingdom, to which the Scottish regiments make an important contribution.

I thank the armed forces for their work in standing up to support the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust, and for the planning and logistical support. As the Secretary of State mentioned, the training happens in the local authority of Powys, in which my constituency resides. The vaccine roll-out has been slow to date, sadly, in Wales. Will the Secretary of State assure me that any MACA request for support for that vaccination roll-out will be met with open arms and that the Ministry of Defence stands ready to support the Welsh vaccination effort?

I absolutely will support any request from the Welsh Government to increase vaccination delivery to people in Wales.

I have had very positive feedback from Calderdale Council on the support from military planners, which has been incredibly welcome. However, the biggest challenge for planning ahead has been the intermittent supply of vaccines. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he is working closely with public health colleagues to align supply of the vaccine with the deployment of military resources, in order to get as many doses out as quickly as possible?

Yes; vaccine delivery or actually jabbing into people has increased on a daily basis and is consistently increasing towards meeting the Prime Minister’s target of the middle of February. The hon. Lady will know that in Yorkshire and Humberside we have four planners in South Yorkshire, four in Humber, five in West Yorkshire, 86 personnel supporting community testing in Kirklees, and one environmental health officer supporting the South Yorkshire region as a whole.

Telford is home to MOD Donnington, a state-of-the-art Army logistics site, so I know first hand that our armed forces excel at logistics. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that this exceptional logistics expertise works with the NHS to scale up our vaccine network and deliver the vaccine programme 24/7 as soon as vaccines supply allows?

I visited Donnington at the beginning of this outbreak, where I saw at first hand the Army using their expertise to unload ventilators that had been brought into the country from China or other locations. As I said earlier, it reminds me of how important civil servants and the other workforces are in the armed forces; not just the uniformed personnel are making things happen. MOD Donnington is not currently required as a base for vaccination by Public Health England or the Department of Health and Social Care, but we are always open to suggestions, and of course the logistics requirements of covid will still route through Donnington. On the personnel side, we have all seen Brigadier Prosser at the press conference giving his expertise and knowledge in helping the response.

Once again this is an opportunity to allow us to thank the Army for the great work it does. I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State about the amount of civilian requests that the Army responds to, and it is certainly a very impressive record.

Yesterday, the Minister for employment in Northern Ireland asked for the Army to assist with the covid response in Northern Ireland, and a former member of the Northern Ireland Committee for Health, Jonathan Buckley, has called for the Army’s logistical know-how to be deployed also. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will not spare Sinn Féin blushes in any way in the Northern Ireland Executive, and if the Army is required and called on, it will be deployed and used appropriately in Northern Ireland?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. There are plenty of people on all sides of the community who recognise what this is about: a pandemic, and fighting that pandemic.

Even during the troubles, when I was there, there were many people in nationalist west Belfast, for example, who recognised the difference between security and other operations, and just getting on and helping people. I fully expect the Northern Ireland Executive to come forward with a request. We have some inbound. We will support them, whoever they come from—from whatever Minister they come from and whatever Ministry. If they require it and they need our help, they can have it.

Just as an example of some of the military activity in England, we have seen the military rapid reaction vaccination teams working. In Wales, military personnel are supporting health trusts and driving ambulances. In Scotland, they are supporting testing and vaccination. In Northern Ireland, I understand the defence estate has been loaned to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and that they are facilitating medevac.

Would the Secretary of State agree with me that this, more than ever, shows the security, strength and benefit of our four nations being part of the United Kingdom, rather than a separatist agenda which would weaken the whole country, and could have fragmented this valuable and essential response?

My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. When I send helicopters to the highlands and islands of Scotland with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine—a British developed vaccine, using all the skills of both the international community and the United Kingdom community—I am incredibly conscious that this is a whole-of-nation effort to attack the virus and rid it from these shores.

We cannot help but note that the British forces are truly that: British. People in my office and my Department—indeed, people in all regiments—come from all four corners. When this is over and we are judged, one of the questions will be, “Did we reach the fingertips of the United Kingdom?” The armed forces make that happen.

I pay tribute to our armed forces, who are working hard to keep us safe during the pandemic. Barnsley East has not been allocated a vaccine centre, so can I ask the Secretary of State if it is possible for the armed forces to support a vaccine roll-out in my area?

The armed forces are there to help it happen in an area. If the regional NHS requests it or demands it, then of course we will be there to help to set it up, man it or staff it. In addition, no doubt some of the hon. Lady’s GP surgeries will be delivering the vaccine.

Not far away in other parts of West Yorkshire, we have 86 personnel in community testing. We have planners, as I listed earlier, in South Yorkshire, Humber and West Yorkshire. They are there and they are in listening mode. They are also delivering other assistance. If they require more assistance, either from the local authority or the regional NHS, we will be there to deliver it.

Order. I am afraid that this will have to be the last question; I have allowed the statement to run at least 10 minutes over the allocated time. However, I draw the attention of colleagues in the Chamber to the fact that there is a debate shortly on covid; they may perhaps wish to intervene on the Minister in the next debate. The final question comes from Sara Britcliffe.

Our armed forces really are the very best in the world. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Army is working closely with local councils, such as our own in Lancashire, to set up our vaccine network and use battle-preparation techniques to help us to keep up the pace?

Yes, I can. I visited the north-west region hub at Preston on Thursday and spoke with a number of leaders of the councils, including my hon. Friend’s. We are helping right now. What is really important here is that Whitehall recognises that local authorities are very, very important in finding those people who need a vaccine or need testing.

One of the lessons of Liverpool was that even when we set up a testing site literally outside the front door of certain people, the key people who we need to be tested or vaccinated do not always come forward. The local authorities will be a key plank in making sure we close the final mile on vaccines. That is why we will continue to work with them, both as the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care.