Skip to main content

UK Military Personnel Serving Overseas: Vaccination

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the vaccination of UK military personnel serving overseas.

As soon as our hugely successful covid vaccination programme was launched, I wanted to ensure that our armed forces would have access to vaccines as quickly as possible, so we tasked the Department with ensuring that nobody would be disadvantaged by serving our country abroad. This means people would be offered vaccinations no later than they would have at home, and that those who needed to would be vaccinated before they left the UK.

Our critical outputs, including the continuous-at-sea deterrent crew and the quick reaction alert air crew, have rightly been prioritised. We have also in recent days completed 100% vaccination for our carrier strike group. I can confirm today that sufficient vaccines for all of our people in all overseas locations have now been dispatched. We are in the process of getting the few remaining people who are awaiting their vaccines their jabs. For those on active operations overseas, we have administered first doses of vaccine to 95% of those eligible and 61% of them have had their second dose. I can assure the House that every single eligible person across Defence, at home or abroad, will have been offered at least their first vaccine dose by 19 July, in line with the national programme.

I am grateful for that reply but it does miss out a lot of detail. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever during Armed Forces Week, when we celebrate the military’s invaluable contribution to our nation, to raise this urgent question as to why we do not have a bespoke vaccination programme for our personnel who are deployed overseas.

In our national battle to tackle covid here in the UK, we have relied on our military from the start—in building Nightingales, driving ambulances, mass testing and, of course, running hundreds of vaccination centres across the country—and yet, when we ask them to return to their day job, those deployed overseas are not fully vaccinated. A reported outbreak of 80 cases in our recent UN mission to Mali illustrates the dangerous consequences. This outbreak would have devastated our operational capability and, indeed, the safety of the mission.

It is standard protocol to inoculate prior to deployment. If we protect our troops against yellow fever, anthrax, malaria, typhoid and a host of other infectious diseases, why not covid when we have these vaccines now? Our NATO allies are doing just that. The USA, France, Holland and Germany all have fully vaccinated their deployed troops, so why have we not? I understand that our NATO partners have in fact expressed concern that the Queen Elizabeth battle group departed without all personnel having received two vaccines and, indeed, our Gulf allies have also registered their concern that our personnel based in their stations abroad are without the vaccines.

This is an easy call to get right, but it is also an irresponsible one to get wrong and arguably a potential breach of the armed forces covenant and our duty of care to our valiant armed forces. However, the picture would be incomplete without registering the MOD’s internal attempts to address this. We must make that clear, but I hope that Whitehall is now listening, and I am sure that the country would want to see key worker status granted to all personnel currently overseas. That is what would resolve this issue. With this challenge now out in the open, in supporting this call, can I ask the MOD to fully vaccinate all our sailors, soldiers and air personnel as a matter of urgency?

I thank my right hon. Friend for asking the urgent question. I have not had any representations from NATO partners or Gulf partners sharing any concerns over our vaccination programme, so he may wish to share with me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State any such representations that he has received so that we can discuss those with our colleagues in other Ministries of Defence. I am also slightly surprised that the MOD’s vaccination programme has become such a matter of urgent attention for him and others in the House, because we have had a series of parliamentary questions on this matter over the last six months, and in all of them, we have been very clear that the MOD’s position is that people would receive their vaccinations overseas in line with their age cohort here in the UK.

Whether that was right or wrong can be a matter of debate, but the MOD position has been very clear throughout. I happen to believe that it is the right decision, because there was no decision to prioritise other professions beyond those within the NHS—military medics, it is important to say, were all vaccinated as a matter of priority alongside their NHS colleagues while they were working in high-risk covid environments.

The other thing that I would just pick up on in my right hon. Friend’s response to my initial answer is his assertion that 80 people on our deployment to Mali had covid. That is simply not the case. The correct figure, as was answered in a parliamentary question last week, is that cumulatively, since the deployment began, 24 people have tested positive for covid. If you will indulge the detail of that, Madam Deputy Speaker, there were six positive tests in March, two in April and one in May for the Chinook detachment, and two in December, six in January, one in February and six in March for the long range reconnaissance group.

This is frankly shocking. Defence Ministers have failed in their first duty to our armed forces, which is to ensure that they are properly trained, equipped and protected when they are deployed overseas, especially in conflict zones such as Mali. Six months ago, when Labour called in this House for Ministers to ramp up testing and to set out a clear plan to vaccinate our troops, the Defence Secretary said:

“We are working on a list right now of who we can prioritise”.—[Official Report, 12 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 189.]

Why was it not done? Why was top priority not given to troops sent overseas?

The Minister has just said it is only being done in line with the national programme. The MOD has been clearer, saying recently:

“UK personnel have been vaccinated in line with national priority guidelines…which saw vaccines rolled out to priority groups in order of age and risk.”

These are guidelines for civilians in Britain, not for troops fighting terrorists, 3,000 miles from home, in countries with jab rates among the lowest in the world— it is still at only 0.2% in Mali. I say to the Minister that that is wrong. How on earth did the Defence Secretary not stand up for the forces he deployed to Mali, Kenya, Oman, Afghanistan and elsewhere? These troops train together and fight together; they should be jabbed together.

How many and what proportion of UK military personnel deployed abroad, country by country, have contracted covid? How many have now been double jabbed, and when will all of them be done? Have all those deployed on core defence tasks, such as the continuous at-sea deterrent, now been double jabbed?

Will the Minister comment on the circumstances of HMS Defender in the Black sea today?

Finally, will the Minister now make full vaccination mandatory before overseas deployment? The Australians made that commitment in February, and it is high time British Ministers now did the same.

The detail of vaccines and positive tests by country is held, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am not sure you would indulge me if I were to go through the spreadsheet. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would accept it if I were to write to him and place a copy in the Library, so it can be a matter of record.

The headline stat, as I said in my answer to a parliamentary question last week, is that 98.6% of people deployed overseas have had their first dose, and 56% have had their second dose. I accept that there could be a debate on all professions, whether they be clinicians in the NHS, teachers or members of the armed forces. We made a judgment that, where the medical facilities are sufficient to safely administer the vaccine in a deployed environment, those people would receive their vaccine in line with their age cohort in the general UK population. Where it is not possible to do that, such as with the continuous at-sea deterrent, they were fully vaccinated before deployment.

I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the activities around HMS Defender in the Black sea earlier today. No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters, in accordance with international law. We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black sea and provided the maritime community with prior warning of their activity. No shots were directed at HMS Defender, and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.

While it is, of course, welcome that 98.6% of our service personnel overseas have been vaccinated, just for reassurance, of those men and women serving overseas and their families back here in the UK, can my hon. Friend confirm that it is now and will be a priority of the Ministry of Defence, if it is not already, to ensure that all those serving overseas in our name, for this country, have access to both their jabs as a matter of urgency?

First, let me just correct myself for fear that I have inadvertently misled the House: the figure for all overseas deployments is 95%; 98.6% refers to the deployment in Mali. I apologise for that inaccuracy.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Given where we are in the national vaccination programme, one might argue that that is now the case, as everybody is within days of receiving their first jab. In fact, the way that the vaccination programme was administered whereby everybody over 50 received their jab in one go towards the front end of the priority groups at home meant that many in their 50s and 60s overseas—although in the defence population that is not very many—ended up receiving their jabs ahead of their age group in the UK. Likewise, for those under 40, jabs were effectively being rolled out in line with people in their 40s here in the UK. That means that many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen who were in their late teens or 20s were getting their jab well ahead of their contemporaries.

I think many of us are shocked to hear some of the Minister’s comments today. He seems proud of the numbers testing positive in Mali. We should not have any testing positive at all because they should have received a double vaccination.

When we are sending troops into a conflict situation, they must be given appropriate personal protective equipment, including vaccination against whatever the threat is, and clearly covid is a big threat at the moment. The Government have a duty of care to those in the armed forces to ensure that they are able to carry out their duties and that operations are not threatened by illness. There is a potential threat to national security as well. Why have the Government not prioritised the armed forces for vaccination, regardless of whether they are serving at home or abroad? Can the Minister assure me that from this point on, personnel will not be deployed overseas without receiving both doses of vaccine? How many Royal Navy ships have had to restrict their operations due to covid outbreaks?

First, I would like to challenge the hon. Lady: I am not sure that correcting the assertion that there had been 80 positive cases with the fact that there had been 24 shows pride in that fact; it is just correcting the record in response to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) in the first place.

It is certainly the case that everybody who is deploying on operations now has been jabbed. That goes without saying given that we are now at the stage where everybody under the age of 40 has had their jab. It is not necessarily the case that everybody has had two jabs and not necessarily possible to accelerate that. The Royal Anglian battlegroup, for example, who have just deployed to Mali, have had their first jab. They will receive their second when the appropriate period of time has passed between jabs. Otherwise there is no point in jabbing them because the effectiveness of the vaccination will not be as high as it should be. However, we have certainly reached a point in the vaccination programme where everybody who is being deployed has been vaccinated.

Clearly we must make sure that there is availability of vaccinations, and we must do everything we can to build public trust right across society, including our armed forces, in the effectiveness of the vaccinations. There has recently been some press comment about what the Government might do with those in the armed forces who refuse to accept the vaccine. I seek two reassurances from the Minister: first, that the maximum will be done to persuade them of the advisability of having a vaccination; and secondly, that they will not have their careers damaged because of their refusal to accept the vaccine.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. It is not in our gift to order people to take a medication should they not wish to do so. Prior to deployments where we have been seeking to fully vaccinate beforehand, we have been having a conversation with those who have expressed concern to try to reassure them that the vaccine is entirely safe and that it is in their interest to take it. I can absolutely assure him that anybody who needs to be removed from an operational deployment because of their unwillingness to take a vaccine is not in any way career fouled as a consequence.

The reports of events in the Black sea remind us of why families worry when they have serving personnel at sea or serving abroad. Can my hon. Friend reassure the constituents who have contacted me on this issue that the vaccine roll-out programme to our brave men and women is going well and will hit the targets he has outlined?

I certainly can. The second doses will all be deployed so that everybody overseas gets them as soon after their first dose as is medically advisable. Achieving that is not without challenge: getting these doses forward can require quite a logistical effort given some of the locations in which our people serve, but that has gone well and it is testament to military planners in the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Medical Services that that is the case.

It is obviously deeply troubling, no matter how many service personnel who have been deployed have now got covid—whether the number is 80 or 28 or whatever the clarification the Minister has given—that there are also media reports that those personnel did not have enough test kits or enough space in order to self-isolate. Can the Minister clarify that he is doing all he can to get test kits out to those service personnel who are defending us, as it should be the first duty of Ministers to protect service personnel who are protecting us, and can he ensure that any troops deployed in the coming months on operations will have everything they need in terms of testing and space to self-isolate if, unfortunately, they contract covid-19?

We do not recognise the reports in the press about lack of access to testing equipment; I have been assured that testing equipment was available in all theatres. The article to which I think the hon. Gentleman refers was about Mali, and there was certainly sufficient testing equipment in Mali at the time the article refers to.

The ability to self-isolate is slightly more challenging in some military settings than in others; in submarines, for example, it is quite hard, but in many other deployments it is perfectly possible. We do our best to make such provision available, but obviously field conditions are at times a slightly austere environment, in which case that is not always possible.

I welcome the update on vaccinations for our forces. While the MOD has a clear responsibility to protect its people, does the Minister agree that our forces will always get on with the task in hand and will generally be comfortable with risk in the face of adversity, a lesson that can perhaps be extended more broadly to our fight against the pandemic today?

My hon. Friend is right of course that people in our armed forces do accept a heightened risk. However, the risk that they offer to accept is ordinarily one that is posed by the enemy, and we in the MOD certainly do not assume that they are willing and able to accept a higher risk of infection from a virus. The judgment that was made was not around their acceptance of risk; it was made around the fact that military personnel are invariably young, fit and healthy, so when decisions were made about the prioritisation of vaccine it felt correct—and I stand by this now—to prioritise the vaccination of those who were more elderly and vulnerable at home rather than those who were younger, fitter and healthier and serving overseas.

We are all aware of the rigid, dogmatic vaccination policies of the Health Department bureaucrats and the utter failure of the Health Ministers to inject some common sense—they really are hopeless—but the Minister’s pitiful response today shows that Defence Ministers have meekly gone along with this. So the real question is why did our Defence Ministers not show some backbone by standing up for our troops and insisting on vaccines before deployment, if necessary forcing a decision for the Prime Minister? Can the Minister explain that failure?

I think I have answered the question already. We made the case for priority vaccination for those whom we felt needed to be vaccinated because it was unrealistic to vaccinate them other than as a priority right at the start of vaccination programmes—the nuclear deterrent quick reaction alert aircrew for example. Thereafter it was perfectly possible to safely vaccinate members of the armed forces in line with their age cohort, and the correct judgment was made in prioritising those who were more elderly and vulnerable at home.

We now have a clear position whereby two vaccinations are required, with a period of time obviously required between those vaccinations to maximise the efficacy of the vaccine. Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that when we are vaccinating our armed forces, we are ensuring not only that the intervals between the jabs are maintained, but that we are allowing a period of time after the second jab is provided before our armed forces are sent on deployments, so that they are given the maximum possible protection from covid-19?

I cannot do that, because we have made sure that our forces have received their first jabs in line with or ahead of their contemporaries in the general population. They will receive their second doses at the appropriate time thereafter—once deployed, in the case of those recently deployed to Mali. I think that is an appropriate way of doing this. These are young, fit and healthy people, and they will get both their first and second doses well ahead of their contemporaries at home.

Can I say to the Minister that there is a clue in his title: Minister of State for the Armed Forces? It is about standing up for our armed forces. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), I find it astounding that the Minister has just followed Department of Health guidance, rather than saying that there is a priority need, as the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said, for people to have been vaccinated before overseas operations.

Let me ask the Minister directly about the 28 personnel —or whatever the number is, because he gave me a different one in a written answer about Mali the other day. What operational effect did that actually have on our contribution to the multinational force that is out there, because that is the key test? I just find it unacceptable that we did not vaccinate people against covid before they went.

First, there is an important point of fact: the battle group to which the right hon. Gentleman refers deployed in December 2020, before any vaccine had been certified. It would have been impossible to have vaccinated the Light Dragoons battle group before they were even deployed.

It is true; they deployed in December 2020, and I believe that the first vaccination of a civilian in the UK was in December 2020. I do not see how the right hon. Gentleman could expect that to have been the case. He also asked a question about operational output, which is the right question to ask. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and others who were briefed by the commanding officer of the Light Dragoons last week will perhaps be able to reassure him, there was no impact on operational output.

Although this is a question about defence personnel overseas, it would be remiss of me not to take a moment to thank the members of the armed forces who have helped with vaccine roll-out at home, including those from Leuchars, based in my constituency. May I ask the Minister, what discussions did the MOD have with deployed military personnel—such as the British Armed Forces Federation and other associations for military personnel—before deciding on the strategy that has clearly been the subject of this urgent question?

I echo the hon. Member’s thanks to all those military personnel who have been involved not just in the vaccine taskforce, but in all other parts of the response to the covid pandemic, particularly those in her constituency. Clearly, decisions such as this are initially decisions for policy makers in Government. I think that I have been very clear about our willingness as a ministerial team to own the decision that we took; I think it was the right one. I know that the chain of command have every confidence that the vaccination programme that we have set ourselves to deliver is indeed delivering. There were no conversations beyond that with any of the agencies or organisations that she mentioned.

My hon. Friend will be aware that there are a good number of British troops deployed in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, training the peshmerga in their ongoing military fight with Daesh, and we know that Daesh seeks to capitalise on some of the chaos of the pandemic to make advances. I understand that our deployment in Iraq will be growing slightly over the next year, so will my hon. Friend assure me that anybody deployed there will be fully vaccinated, and that the troops who are training and who are still engaged in military operations have equal access to the vaccine?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that 96% of people currently serving on Op Shader—that will include those who are based in Cyprus as part of the aircrew—have been vaccinated, and 31% have had their second dose. I can assure him that they will receive their second doses as soon as it is medically advisable for them to do so. I cannot, however, tell him that it is policy to vaccinate the troops with whom they are partnering.

Will the Minister publish details of the risk assessment that was undertaken to determine why our troops were not fast-tracked for vaccine before deployment in high-risk areas?

Look, this is just wrong and the Minister should admit it. Our service personnel deserve full vaccination before deployment on overseas missions. When the US, France, Germany and others have fully vaccinated their forces, it does not seem right that we are behind the curve on this. He says that all personnel are now single-jabbed but there is no point in providing second jabs unless the required time has elapsed for them to be effective. I get that, but can he make it clear to the House whether that is the 12-week extended gap that the public have to wait for, or the three-week gap that the vaccine manufacturers recommend?

I will write to the hon. Gentleman if this is incorrect, but I believe that we are working on around a four-week gap.

I thank the Minister for his reassurance that HMS Defender was not coming under fire earlier today in the Black sea. In Armed Forces Week, when we thank and celebrate our whole armed forces community, will the Minister join me in thanking all who were involved so invaluably in the vaccine roll-out in all four nations of the United Kingdom? Will he reassure me that, from the youngest recruit to those approaching retirement, all our armed forces will be prioritised for vaccinations?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in celebrating all who serve and have served in our nation’s armed forces, and in thanking them for doing so. She will have heard in my responses to previous questions that we are vaccinating the vast majority of the armed forces community, with the exception of those involved in nuclear deterrence and other niche tasks, in line with wider priorities. In reality, the way that delivery has taken place means that the vast majority of our armed forces, who are in their late teens and 20s, are being vaccinated ahead of their contemporaries in the general population. The decision was taken some months ago that we would not vaccinate the armed forces ahead of the general population, and that we would instead prioritise those who are more elderly and vulnerable.

Oh, I am so sorry! How could I possibly miss out the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)? I would never wish to do so.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I saw you looking around, and I wondered whether you would look for me in my usual spot.

We have so much to thank our service personnel for, and they put a lot on the line to serve, in terms of their family life. Those families back home have grave concerns about their service personnel who are serving overseas, and those who are serving overseas have concerns about their families back home. What has been done to assure the members of those families, both at home and away, that they will be safe and sound and will see each other again?

The hon. Gentleman was probably waiting for you to start the Adjournment debate before he intervened, Madam Deputy Speaker, as is his normal fashion. He raises an important point; as someone who served overseas on operations, I knew I was okay until I was not, but for those who are left behind—the families of our serving personnel—there is a daily worry about their safety and the threats they are facing. Indeed, many colleagues in the House have written to me on behalf of parents and loved ones of people deploying to seek reassurance about the vaccination programme, and we have made sure that that has been given to them, so that families understand that their loved ones will be vaccinated while in theatre. The families of our armed forces are as vital a part of the armed forces community as those who serve, and the hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity, in Armed Forces Week, to remark on their steadfastness and the important role they play in maintaining the fighting power of our armed forces.