Covid-19: Departmental Support

Defence – in the House of Commons on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Jamie Wallis Jamie Wallis Conservative, Bridgend

What support his Department has provided in tackling the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

What support his Department has provided in tackling the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

On any given day, up to 4,000 men and women of the armed forces support the Government’s response to covid.

Photo of Jamie Wallis Jamie Wallis Conservative, Bridgend

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in times of crisis such as the current covid-19 pandemic, our best approach is a united one? Can he therefore describe how the military has helped the people of Wales in dealing with covid-19?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Joint Military Command Wales has provided mobile decontamination teams and drivers to support the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust. It has also provided general duties personnel to unload PPE from aircraft at Cardiff Airport and transfer it to civilian trucks for onward distribution to Bridgend. As of 10 May, there are 30 military planners also embedded with the Welsh Government.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

I welcome the intervention of the Ministry of Defence in supporting the covid-19 testing capacity across the whole UK, but can my right hon. Friend tell me what discussions he has had with the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved Administrations on the effectiveness of those MOD testing facilities, and will he meet me, at least virtually, to discuss specific issues that we have had recently in Peterhead in my own constituency?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Mobile testing is a capability developed between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Defence under DHSC direction. NHS Scotland decides on the location to which each mobile testing unit will be deployed in Scotland. Peterhead, to which my hon. Friend refers, was an isolated incident in which the opening of the site was delayed due to capacity issues with central laboratories. Unfortunately, the site incorrectly remained open on the digital booking portal for a few hours longer. Such bookings were accepted when the site opened on 4 May. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss further the use and deployment of mobile facilities throughout Scotland.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome, too. It is a privilege to take on this role, which has always been so important to the Labour party. We will do right by our armed forces and veterans and we will promote their role as a force for good at home and abroad. Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to our military’s essential role in helping the country to respond to the covid crisis. They are keeping us safe, and it is right that we do everything we can to keep them safe.

The US Defence Department has increased its testing capacity to 30,000 military personnel a week. It has set out a strategic testing plan and has now tested everyone deemed a priority for national security, including strategic deterrence, nuclear deterrence, anti-terror forces and healthcare as well as, of course, its entire covid support force. Has the Secretary of State done the same here in the UK?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Member. May I place on record a tribute to his predecessor, Nia Griffith, who did a great job as shadow Defence Secretary, sometimes in difficult circumstances? We have done it slightly differently from the United States with testing our personnel. We have no problems whatsoever testing whoever we want, when we want. The best example I can give is that, before embarkation, we tested all 799 of the crew of the Queen Elizabeth carrier. We will test them again throughout their period of sailing and when they return.

We have a strategy around protecting the national security-vital parts of our forces, which involves testing and quarantine. That is also being carried out in areas that I will not particularly comment on; nevertheless, the right hon. Member mentioned what the Americans view as strategically important. We do not have a mass programme; we have testing that is available—we do not have any problems acquiring it—and, as we bring forces up to either readiness or deployment, there is an opportunity if required, if quarantine has not done the job, to test them as well.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The Secretary of State talked about testing who we want when we want, but he gave no definition of that. The last published figures show that we had tested just 1% of our entire military personnel. This is about keeping our armed forces safe and safeguarding our national security. There is no fix for coronavirus without mass testing, and we really expect the Ministry of Defence to lead the way, not lag behind, so will he get a grip of this? Will he produce a plan for testing our military, set a target for the number of tests and publish the results, just as our allies in the US have done?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Member. The reality is that we have a grip, because we do have a plan. We have certain individuals whom we treat as a priority and, at the same time, we have all the availability we need for testing; getting it is not a problem. He will know that the vast majority of our military in the UK have been sent home to self-isolate in their homes and follow what the rest of society is doing; they are not on duty, en masse back in their barracks unless they are part of the covid force.

Those who are part of the covid force and either feel symptoms or come into contact with someone will be tested. There is a clear path for them, through the medical officers and the direction of the commands, to get testing. There is a plan. Unlike the United States, we have sent many of our personnel home. They can acquire testing, if they feel the need, in the same way as the rest of the public. When we bring them back for duty, we will have a proper regime for getting back to work, following the Government’s changes to advice. In getting back to work, a comprehensive testing plan will be included.