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Covid-19: Military Operations and Support

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 10 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the continuity of military operations and support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence has continued to deliver its essential outputs throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. While non-critical outputs were scaled back at the early stages of lockdown, these are now being restored. Social distancing and other safety measures, in line with Public Health England guidance, have also been implemented to further reduce the risk to the health of defence personnel.

My Lords, events such as the diagnosis of Covid-19 among the crew of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” hit the headlines. Can my noble friend reassure me that care is also taken to ensure continuity in service of less well-known craft such as auxiliary landing ship dock RFA “Mounts Bay” and HMS “Tyne”, the latter performing a valuable service protecting our fishing fleet?

I can reassure my noble friend that the safety and welfare of our people are paramount. Measures are in place to safeguard them and to reduce the risk to both them and their families. While workplaces have been adjusted to meet Covid-19 guidance, all personnel who have been eligible for testing if displaying symptoms have been tested, and we have followed public health guidance throughout. I can reassure my noble friend about the continuance of operations. There has been a steady drumbeat of activity on land, sea and air.

My Lords, have the Government, through the Ministry of Defence or the National Security Council, conducted any analysis of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on conflict and tension in the most important conflict spots around the world? Will that analysis, if it exists, be included in the integrated review on security, defence, development and foreign policy that the Government are due to publish in October?

Because of Covid-19, now more than ever we must be mindful of the long-term consequences of the decisions we take and of how the crisis could shift the context in which we operate domestically and internationally. The review will still be radical in its reassessment of the nation’s place in the world, and that will include accounting for the implications of Covid-19.

My Lords, at the height of the pandemic, the Armed Forces had 20,000 people at readiness to deal with Covid and up to 4,000 people deployed at any one time. If we are assuming a second peak and activity going through next winter, are the Armed Forces manned to deal with the crisis on an ongoing basis?

I reassure the noble Baroness that we are preparing for whatever scenarios unfold as we approach winter. We will use the Cabinet Office-endorsed reasonable worst-case scenario, produced by SAGE, to inform departmental planning activities for the winter months.

Will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to the pivotal role our Armed Forces have played domestically and internationally in responding to the pandemic? Is my noble friend familiar with and supportive of the recommendations in the Policy Exchange report Operation Covid-19, which encourages learning from our Armed Forces about analysis, planning and delivering in such crises?

I thank my noble friend for her tribute to the Armed Forces; it enables me to put on the record my absolutely unbounded admiration for all they have done in the most extraordinary circumstances, displaying the very best of our defence professionalism. We all owe them a huge vote of thanks. They displayed throughout the United Kingdom —not just in England but in the devolved nations—their skills of logistical planning and strategic advice. I am very grateful to my noble friend for bringing attention to the report to which she referred.

My Lords, in order to observe social distancing, were service personnel required to vacate their accommodation and expected to sleep elsewhere? What steps were taken to cancel accommodation costs and refund inevitable transport costs for those so instructed?

I will have to undertake to write to the noble and gallant Lord with a more specific response. I can say that, in general, arrangements were made for isolation and that these arrangements were flexible depending on what was best for the individual involved. Obviously, we adhered to the rules in the same way as we would for any other UK citizen, with appropriate modification to take account of the atypical accommodation often found in defence. I shall write to the noble and gallant Lord with further detail.

My Lords, our troops have rightly continued their duties overseas for the duration of this pandemic, keeping our citizens safe and helping to maintain international peace. Can the Minister say how many personnel are currently absent from operations due to testing positive for Covid or being in quarantine? How often personnel are tested when they are serving in high-risk parts of the world?

I am unable to give the noble Lord a specific answer on the number who are absent. I have data for the number of people who are tested and the proportion of these who prove positive, but we do not have centrally held data on the more detailed pattern of Covid-related absences.

My Lords, how will the United Kingdom continue to support operations and the NATO policy of deterrence by conventional means if we are to abandon land-based capabilities, such as tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, as is now widely reported?

I know the noble Lord is anxious to draw me on some specifics, but he will not be surprised to learn that I am not going there. The integrated review is under way, and it is a significant and important review. As I explained earlier to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, we are taking account of all changing circumstances. The objective is to be in a situation with the capability, robust and tested, to meet the challenges of the new age. We are living in a very different age to even 10 years ago with new threats and technologies. The integrated review will take all that into account.

My Lords, the Army said that it is ready to serve during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it could also support the NHS. Some 4,000 military personnel have been seconded to civil authorities. Can the Minister say whether the Navy or Air Force have also provided any support?

I am going to undertake to write to the noble Lord with more detail. I do not have sufficient information before me to respond to his question.

My Lords, I have been informed that at Army training establishments, such as Catterick and Sandhurst, all the trainees—who are young people, in least danger of catching or suffering from this virus—are confined to barracks for the entire period of training, not just the normal part of the course. However, the staff are, quite rightly, allowed to return to their families and the community. Can my noble friend confirm whether this is the case? If so, is it not contrary to a basic rule of leadership, namely leading by example? Should we not consider the morale and mental well-being of keen young volunteers joining the Army confined to barracks against all logic?

I say to my noble friend that what the Armed Forces have been doing has rightly drawn admiration, as has already been indicated in the Chamber. These activities require training, and it requires a level of training to continue, and to ensure that this happened, ongoing training has taken place. Stringent protective measures are in place after specific planning processes and full risk assessments have been conducted, all in accordance with government and health guidance. At the end of the day, the safety and welfare of our men and women is paramount.

My Lords, following that question, training is vital for sustaining the continuity of military operations. Can the Minister inform the House whether the pandemic has had any influence on operational training?

Obviously, at specific times certain personnel have been affected, depending on their health situation. We have taken steps to enable safe training, including social distancing during roll calls and physical training, isolating at the beginning of courses and reconfiguring communal spaces such as canteens, sleeping quarters and classrooms. Therefore, a consistent pattern of training has continued.

My Lords, NATO has already felt the effects of the pandemic: Norway called off Cold Response 2020, Exercise Defender-Europe 20 was restructured and trimmed and Covid-19 entered the Latvian-based NATO battlegroup. Meanwhile, the US European Command has cancelled or postponed a lot of planned exercises. Against this background, what steps is NATO taking to ensure that it will be able to perform core tasks and missions, in the short term and in the longer term, in the absence of these exercises?

The noble Lord is quite correct that decisions were taken to pause certain exercises, and that was the correct decision with regard to the safety and well-being of those who otherwise would have participated. NATO and all member states are anxious to resume activity when circumstances permit that to happen. We must take account of situations in host countries, not just their health situation but what their particular requirements and restrictions may be. I am confident there is a resolve on the part of NATO and the member states to do whatever we can to continue activity, but we must always have at the forefront of that the health, well-being and safety of the personnel of all member states.