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Covid-19: Regional Support

Volume 688: debated on Monday 1 February 2021

As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has been active in all regions of the UK, providing support in a variety of ways, including through the distribution of personal protective equipment and diagnostic equipment; the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals; conducting school and community testing; and providing military support to NHS trusts and support to the vaccine programme. As of 27 January, there are approximately 14,500 personnel committed or at readiness, and service personnel are deployed in every region of the UK.

In the south-east, we are lucky to have more than 300 defence personnel working in a mixture of medical and non-medical roles in our NHS. On Friday, I heard directly from my local trust about how important that has been as a boost to our NHS workforce. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should extend our deepest gratitude to the hard-working men and women who have been working on the frontline of this pandemic?

I certainly do. I am delighted that defence personnel have been of such use to the local authorities in the south-east. Personnel from all three services are employed in a range of roles to support frontline NHS services, both providing direct clinical care and undertaking support roles to free up NHS staff. I know from everything that I have heard from nursing directors and clinicians across the country that their contribution has been of enormous benefit and we are very grateful to them all.

Having volunteered at a new local vaccine centre in Bishop Auckland, I have seen the looks of joy and relief on people’s faces. I was pleased to hear that the Ministry of Defence is standing up more than 40 vaccine quick reaction forces, ready to help ensure that the vaccine roll-out reaches even the most remote areas of the UK. Could my hon. Friend update the House on how many of these teams have been deployed and to where?

With pleasure: 42 vaccine quick reaction force teams comprising 252 defence personnel are deployed across seven NHS England regions to locations determined by NHS priorities. As my hon. Friend says, their primary effort is to ensure that the roll-out of the vaccine is equally paced across the country. Where we can reinforce the efforts of local NHS trusts, that is exactly what these quick reaction teams are there to do.

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answer and for the three military planners who are currently supporting the Staffordshire local resilience forum with their covid-19 related planning. Will he expand on the diverse roles that the military planners have carried out in the pandemic so far?

I have been speaking to our joint military commanders in every region and they have all been clear about the value that these planners and their liaison officers have brought in helping the local authorities to understand what it is that the military could do and in helping us in the MOD to get ahead of that demand so that we can get troops lined up. It is clear that, whatever the lessons learnt about the covid response more generally, one of the biggest lessons for the Ministry of Defence is that those relationships at local level are of huge importance and I hope that we can institutionalise them as we go forward.

May I also put on record my best wishes, and those of my party, to Captain Sir Tom Moore and wish him a speedy recovery?

I have mentioned before that we are extremely grateful for the effort of the armed forces in Scotland, but I must mention the effort that they are making in my constituency at the Castlemilk vaccine centre. It is so good that it even managed to bring the Prime Minister out of Downing Street to my constituency—against all advice, but there we go. What plans does the Minister have to recognise the extraordinary effort and the extraordinary work of those in the armed forces working on the pandemic alongside such brilliant NHS staff up and down the country?

I am not sure whether I agree that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom visiting the United Kingdom armed forces hard at work in all parts of the United Kingdom is in any way an inappropriate activity for him to undertake. The great thing about our nation’s armed forces is that they get on with the job at hand and do not seek any recognition at the time. This is their priority; it is our priority. Of course, we have an eye on how we might recognise their contribution when all this is done.

I can tell the Minister that my inbox tells a rather different story. What they want is to be paid properly, to have decent working conditions and employment conditions, and their families to be supported better. But let me ask this. All those NHS and social care workers they are working alongside in Scotland will receive a £500 thank you payment from the Scottish Government. Will he match that for all UK personnel working here and abroad to help fight the pandemic in the upcoming Budget—yes or no?

I will, of course, have a look at what that might mean, if, in return, the hon. Gentleman will consider taxing the armed forces less than the Scottish Government currently do.