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Covid-19: Security Risks

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to coordinate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic with NATO to prevent any security risks.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, we are working with NATO to help ensure that our adversaries cannot exploit the pandemic and threaten our security, including by tackling disinformation and ensuring NATO’s continuing ability to deter and defend. Demonstrating that NATO can support its members in times of crisis is essential, and the UK has so far responded to nine requests from allies and partners through NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre.

My Lords, while NATO has been a key resource, combating Covid-19 with over 100 missions delivering essential medical supplies, our Government seem to have been slow in putting the alliance at the heart of Britain’s response. How many requests have we made for NATO help, and can the Minister tell us a little more about the work we are doing with NATO to ensure that our adversaries do not put our security at risk by spreading fake news about Covid-19?

I reassure the noble Lord that the United Kingdom Government have been a core component of NATO, working closely with the organisation. We support efforts against disinformation, and we deploy our defence experts into NATO to support this central effort and put our expertise at its disposal.

My Lords, the United States has not exactly distinguished itself by its international attitudes during this crisis, yet it is the leading player in NATO. I wonder if the Minister can tell us what part it has played in this response, and to what extent the Russians are using their tenuous position within the NATO structure to take part in NATO operations.

I am unable to comment specifically on the role of the United States; I am here to answer questions on behalf of the United Kingdom Government. I reassure your Lordships that the United Kingdom Government have been engaged closely with NATO. I refer to some of the tasks that we have undertaken, and we are currently reviewing additional requests for support from the EADRCC for Albania, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

My Lords, NATO’s Rapid Air Mobility initiative, RAM, was activated by the North Atlantic Council on 31 March to help the movement of supplies critical to combating Covid-19. Have many flights by RAF transport aircraft been made in support of RAM? Were last month’s RAF A400M Atlas transportations of personal protective equipment from Turkey to the UK some of these RAM flights?

We have not used the Rapid Air Mobility initiative at all, so the Turkish flight was not one of these flights. However, we have deployed our assets to respond to NATO requests.

My Lords, over these last few weeks during this emergency, NATO has especially proved its worth. I put on record what I think is our collective gratitude to the UK delegation to NATO for its work, especially on social media, to make people aware of what NATO is doing at this point. However, is the Minister as shocked as I am by the recent public opinion survey by King’s College London, which showed that among the over-60s in this country, only 41% said they had any knowledge about NATO, and that this drops to 25% in the under-35s? Surely the Government have a responsibility, indeed a duty, to let the British public know how valuable NATO is to their safety and security. Should they not do more in the information field?

The noble Lord raises an interesting point. With the universal distraction of Covid-19, minds may very well be less focused on NATO and more focused on issues of health, well-being and personal safety. I shall certainly look at the survey, which sounds interesting, and we shall reflect on whether more activity could be engaged in highlighting and heightening NATO’s profile.

My Lords, the global pandemic highlights the biological threats and the sense that the United Kingdom, NATO and our allies could be vulnerable to terrorism in the form of biosecurity threats. What work has the United Kingdom done with our NATO allies to look at biosecurity threats?

I do not have specific information on that topic for the noble Baroness. As she is aware, general work is done with NATO across a range of sectors and activities, but I shall make further inquiries and undertake to write to her.

My Lords, one of the most significant threats to our security would be if our Armed Forces were unable to guarantee that security and to play their part in NATO. With the recent positive tests for Covid among some of the crew on HMS “Queen Elizabeth”, is the Minister confident that any member of the Armed Forces who needs a test has ready access to one? How many have been tested, and how many of those tests have been positive?

I reassure the right reverend Prelate that all defence personnel and their household members who are symptomatic are eligible for testing as part of the national testing programme. The safety of our personnel is paramount.

My Lords, can we return to the question of fake news? Some of it is quite sophisticated and obviously malicious in intent. It gives false and misleading information about the medicine, and seeks to create scapegoats in our Muslim, Jewish and Chinese population. This is designed to undermine society from within. These various attempts have been well established since March of this year. What concrete things have the Government done to combat this?

In relation to NATO in particular, we are a principal contributor of funding to support efforts against misinformation by using cyber intelligence to counter it. On the specific question of what the Government are doing, it crosses a range of activity beyond the MoD. My noble friend will be aware that there has been leadership from the Prime Minister downwards, seeking to call out disinformation and misinformation for what it is, and we all have a role to play in doing that.

My Lords, what consideration are the noble Baroness and NATO giving to a new report which reveals that members of the Five Eyes are strategically dependent on China for 831 separate categories of imports, of which 260 involve elements of critical national infrastructure?

NATO and the member partners always have an interest in reliance on export and import sources. Obviously, it is for individual nation states to determine how and with whom they trade. We have to recognise that that is a necessary freedom in the free flow of trade internationally.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that, despite their efforts, the Government’s response to the pandemic has been marked by inadequacy in certain areas—in pre-planning, logistics, supplies, collective action and speed of reaction? Those are all central characteristics of NATO’s strengths and expertise. Why, then, would the Government not make more use of NATO’s expertise and assistance?

I reassure the noble Lord that the response of the MoD to the Covid-19 challenge has been highly effective and very impressive, and there is widespread evidence of that not just across the United Kingdom but in relation to our international contribution. He will have seen from news footage in the UK exactly how much, how effectively and how positively the MoD contribution has been received.

Can the Minister confirm, contrary to recent reports, that the Government have no intention to reduce defence expenditure in real terms?

The noble Lord will be aware of this Government’s very creditable record in relation to defence expenditure. We saw an upping of £2.2 billion for 2019-20. We have committed to a 0.5% increase above inflation for the lifetime of the Parliament. The Government’s commitment to and resolute support for defence are self-evident.