The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 23 June.
“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.”
My Lords, the first priority of government is the protection of and support for our Armed Forces. As the chair of the Defence Select Committee in the other place said, if we vaccinate our Armed Forces personnel for malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and a host of other diseases prior to deployment, why on earth did we not do so for Covid? How many UK military personnel deployed abroad in areas such as Mali contracted Covid, and have operations been affected? Further, the Minister now tells us that 61% of our troops have been fully vaccinated. When will the rest of them—one in three—receive their second dose, and is it not now extremely urgent that they do so?
The noble Lord is absolutely right that the safety and well-being of our Armed Forces personnel is paramount. Indeed, that was recognised from the start of the pandemic, when the priority was to keep our Armed Forces safe. There were robust safety measures and regimes in place, and that included isolation prior to deployment.
I reassure the noble Lord that when the commencement of the impressively successful vaccination programme began in December 2020, it allowed the MoD to plan and work in tandem with our domestic vaccination programme. Sometimes we were ahead of that, for good operational reasons. The priority for government has been to save the lives of those most at risk. It is right that we followed the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which was to prioritise those older age groups and the most at risk first, rather than prioritise by occupation.
The noble Lord asked me about Covid cases among UK Armed Forces on operations. The figures I have been given are current as at 28 June this year, and are that the percentage of UK Armed Forces registering positive for Covid is: in the Persian Gulf, 0.4%; in Iraq, 0.3%; in Mali, 1.4%; in Afghanistan, 1%; and in Estonia, 13.2%. He will be aware that there was a higher case rate in Estonia due to a significant changeover of personnel at the time.
I reassure the noble Lord that second doses will be offered in line with clinical advice and the exact circumstances of the deployment. Our target within defence is four to eight weeks after the first dose, although, where there is an operational requirement, such as overseas deployment, we may accelerate second doses, subject to clinical guidance on the recommended gaps between doses. The only prioritisation that was effected was, as he will be aware, in respect of the nuclear deterrent, the carrier strike group and the rapid response Typhoon force.
My Lords, this Urgent Question repeat goes back to 23 June. Can the Minister update the House on the figures? We were told that 61% of those on overseas operations had had a second dose of vaccine. What is the percentage now, eight days later? Noting that the Minister for the Armed Forces stated in the other place that by 19 July every member of personnel across defence would have been vaccinated, can she reassure us that that includes junior soldiers at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, who will be under 18?
To come to the noble Baroness’s last question first, my understanding is that the Ministry of Defence will ensure that every adult is offered their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by 19 July, in line with HMG’s accelerated vaccination timelines. Indeed, by that date, many will have completed both doses. I am unaware of the situation in relation to the cohort to which she refers. I undertake to inquire into that and, if I can ascertain further information, I shall write to her.
The noble Baroness asked an important question about percentages of vaccinations given. The figures I have—again, these are as at 28 June 2021—are that: for UK Armed Forces personnel on active operations, 95% have received the first dose, 74% have received the second dose and 2% have refused a dose. As at 28 June for Armed Forces personnel based overseas, excluding operations, my information is that 73% have had a first dose and 35% have had a second dose.
I ask the Minister a related question regarding proof of vaccination for military personnel. As a former CDS whose medical data is still held by the Defence Medical Services, I declare a personal interest. The Minister will be aware that the medical data of defence personnel, including proof of vaccination, is held in a way that is inaccessible via the NHS app. I accept that a highly complex work-around is available, but only to those who are extremely technically gifted. When will this significant disadvantage be resolved?
The noble and gallant Lord raises an important issue. It is complex, but I hope I can provide some further information and perhaps some reassurance. The interchange of vaccination data between NHS systems and defence medical systems is already fully operational for the vast majority of personnel, but for security reasons and to ensure that a greater proportion of defence personnel can access their vaccination status, all defence personnel must use the NHS website rather than the mobile phone application. I think that he will be sympathetic to the security nuances of that situation. I reassure him that that information has been widely communicated to all personnel and we have, just in the past day, reissued communications on this topic, including by text message and by guidance on our intranet.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s reply to my noble friend Lord Coaker, but press her a little further on this area. I am sure she would agree that it is government’s first duty to our Armed Forces to ensure they are properly trained, equipped and protected when they are deployed in service. Was it therefore a mistake to follow the age- related criteria and not to fully vaccinate our front-line troops at the beginning of the vaccination programme?
I say to the noble Baroness that it was not a mistake. She will understand that judgments have to be made on these issues. She will also be aware that the unfolding of the vaccination programme was innovatory and new territory for government—indeed, new territory for many countries across the world. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the MoD took a view that it was right to follow the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that it was preferable to prioritise those in the older age groups and those most at risk, rather than by occupation. However, as I also indicated to her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on occasions we, in fact, vaccinated prior to deployment if there was no opportunity for vaccination during deployment. Specifically, we made sure that regarding our critical outputs, which I have already described, we prioritised vaccination of those groups of persons.
My Lords, while it is not the Minister’s bag, in addition to the question of UK military personnel serving overseas, is she aware what provision has been made for serving diplomats posted overseas, which we should be offering to reciprocate in London anyway?
The noble Viscount is absolutely right; it is not my bag and I do not want to get into hot water with my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. In fact, from speaking to my defence attaché colleagues in one part of the globe this morning, I understand that our Diplomatic Service has been protected but I hesitate to give any further specific information because I do not possess it. I suggest that the noble Viscount might want to direct his question to my colleague, my noble friend Lord Ahmad.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.