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Armed Forces: Covid-19 Deployment

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer was given to an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on Tuesday 10 November.

“The Secretary of State was pleased to commit to updating colleagues about the latest developments on Covid support by placing regular updates in the House of Commons Library, the first of which will be delivered today. I am also pleased that the shadow Secretary of State will be visiting Standing Joint Command later this week to meet in person the senior military leadership delivering the support across the country.

The Armed Forces are renowned for their planning skills, technical capabilities and ability to provide rapid and effective deployed response. They are being put to good use yet again. At all times they are acting in support of, and at the request of, the civil authorities from every part of the United Kingdom. So far this year the Ministry of Defence has received 420 MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—requests, 341 of which have been Covid-related. The Armed Forces have provided enormous support while themselves taking all appropriate Covid precautions and while maintaining our critical defence outputs, ensuring that at all times they are protecting our country, our interests and our friends.

Our present support for the Government’s preparation for the winter period, including the Covid-19 response, is one of Defence’s highest priorities. Defence has established a winter support force of approximately 7,500 deployable personnel, in addition to the many defence medics already embedded in the NHS and the support, when called upon, of our defence scientists in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Defence is currently supporting 41 MACA tasks, including assistance to the whole-town testing pilot in Liverpool and the Birmingham City Council drop and collect scheme. Personnel have previously supported activities from the Nightingale facility construction, vaccine planning, personal protective equipment distribution and the staffing of testing centres. They remain ready to undertake further tasks.

Defence has made thorough preparations to contribute as requested to civil authorities’ responses through the MACA system and will keep the force elements held in readiness to do so under constant review, adjusting the capabilities provided to meet demand. The nation can be reassured, especially in this week of remembrance, that Defence stands ready, as ever, to support whenever, wherever and however required, and will continue to do so, for as long as is necessary.”

My Lords, I am sure the whole House will be at one in thanking the men and women of our Armed Forces for the vital support they have given during the pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that the Covid support will have no adverse impact on training, standing commitments or our ability to respond to conflicts and threats? Can she also say how many military aid to civil authority requests are expected this winter? With news of a vaccine on the horizon, are the Armed Forces involved in planning its nationwide distribution and use?

I thank the noble Lord very much for his tribute to the Armed Forces, which I am sure is endorsed throughout the Chamber. In 2020, there were 420 MACA requests, 341 of which were Covid-related. The MoD is currently supporting 41. As to future projections, we stand ready to offer support, but are awaiting invitations to provide it. On the important matter of the vaccine, I confirm that the Ministry of Defence has already deployed military personnel to the Vaccine Taskforce, supporting the central organisation and exploring how Defence could bring logistical support to the national rollout of a future vaccine.

My Lords, I similarly pay tribute to the Armed Forces in this week of remembrance. Could the Minister say what impact work on Covid might have on the other activities of the Armed Forces and whether training is carrying on as normal? Clearly other threats will not decline.

In relation to our current obligations, we have conducted prudent planning against a range of potential risks facing the nation over winter. We have a package of 7,500 personnel placed at heightened readiness to enable rapid response to HMG requests at this time of national crisis. Clearly the pandemic has disrupted some activity, but the MoD is endeavouring to ensure that we return to normal, in so far as that is consistent with the safety of our personnel. We ensure that whatever our personnel are asked to do is compliant with Public Health England.

I declare an interest as a member of the Army Reserve. Living and working in the local community and with a host of civilian skills, reservists are ideally suited to MACA tasks, but are underutilised because there is a perception that, while cheap to hold, they are expensive to use. Can my noble friend look at ways to incentivise the single services to make better use of reserves?

With their unique skills, the reservists have played a pivotal role in the response to Covid-19. They have been part of that response at every level. At one point, we had 2,300 Army reservists mobilised as part of Operation Rescript and the MoD’s contribution to the Covid-19 response. Currently, 340 reservists are mobilised to that operation and we have 100 additional reservists to support wider defence recovery. I pay tribute to their contribution.

I thank the Minister and other noble Lords for their appreciative comments about the use of the Armed Forces during the pandemic. Historically, deployment of the Armed Forces in support of civil authorities has been found from spare capacity within the Armed Forces. Does the Minister acknowledge that the size of the Armed Forces has been considerably reduced in recent years and, therefore, available spare capacity is also much reduced? Will the noble Baroness indicate whether, in the forthcoming integrated security and defence review, future support to civil authorities will become a formal military task and be properly resourced as such?

I thank the noble Lord, and confirm that the responsibility of the MoD to support MACA requests is taken with the utmost seriousness and, as has been evident from the contribution this year, is responded to with great professionalism and skill. The integrated review is currently on hold and the Government are still to announce when that process, along with the spending review, will be published. I can reassure the noble Lord that the MoD conducted the most extensive research for the input to the review, in the analysis of both what we require now and what we anticipate we will require in the future. Given what we have been through this year, the Government are very sensitive to the significance of the MoD’s capacity to meet MACA requests.

My Lords, our Armed Forces are a United Kingdom asset that serve all four nations. Of those 420 requests for military aid to the civil authorities, of which 341 are Covid-related, could the Minister tell noble Lords how many came from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? In addition, 1,600 MoD medics are currently embedded in the NHS. Are there any plans to extend that embedding of MoD personnel in the NHS?

I will need to offer to write to the noble Baroness with the specific information she requests. I can confirm that, across the United Kingdom, the MoD, through MACA response, has supported all parts of the United Kingdom, including the devolved Administrations.

Will the Minister confirm that these schemes are of mutual benefit and that the forces get experience of planning, reconnaissance, deployment and evaluation? Will she say what effect this had had on recruitment? How many extra people have been recruited to our forces as a result?

Yes, the personnel from the MoD participating in MACA responses have had hugely positive emotions in understanding the contribution they are making and seeing at first hand the appreciation of the public for their efforts. On the important issue of recruitment, I am pleased to say to the noble Lord that the intake to the regular Armed Forces in the 12 months to 1 July 2020 was up 12.9% compared with the previous 12 months, which is a very gratifying situation.

My Lords, I declare an interest: I have a child in the Armed Forces. Following on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart, the figure of 1,600 was given by the Minister in the other place—these are the medics from the Armed Forces currently embedded in the NHS. Can my noble friend confirm whether this figure includes fifth-year medical students? Perhaps it is an issue she will write to me on. Are there any plans that these students will be graduated early, as happened last year, so they can start to serve on the front line?

In times of nationwide civil emergency, the two most relevant military capabilities are a pool of disciplined manpower and a system of command and control, optimised for turning strategic aspirations into co-ordinated tactical action. A recurring lesson from past emergencies, from foot and mouth to Olympic security, indicates that this latter experience is not well understood by Government. Can the Minister confirm to the House that the military’s expertise in command and control is being properly harnessed?

I would like to reassure the noble and gallant Lord that it is. He will understand, from his own knowledge, both the level and extent to which the MoD has provided advice to the highest levels of government. Much of that advice has been welcomed by government precisely because of the attributes that the noble and gallant Lord identified in relation to the MoD and Armed Forces’ experience of command and delivery.

As someone who has done a considerable amount of research into, and study of, eastern and central Europe, can I counsel the Minister to avoid using the Armed Forces for anything that resembles coercive control?

I am not quite sure what my noble friend means by that phrase. If he is alluding to the possibility that the military will be asked to step in to enforce law and order, there is absolutely no intention for that to happen.

Where are the people who are serving in Liverpool based at present? How far do they have to travel each day?

Approximately 2,000 personnel are currently committed to the mass testing project in Liverpool. As to precisely where they are based, I do not have specific information, but I undertake to write to the noble Lord with that information.