The speech made by John Healey, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 12 January 2021.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement and I welcome this direct update to the House. This is a chance for us all to thank and pay tribute to the 5,000 forces personnel, both regulars and reservists, who are currently providing covid assistance, and to the leadership from Standing Joint Command under Lieutenant General Urch. The Labour leader and I saw at first hand in November the professionalism and commitment that the team at Aldershot bring to this task. The public also welcome the important contribution our armed forces are making to help the country through the continuing covid crisis, from troops on the frontline building Nightingale hospitals, community testing or driving ambulances and tankers, to the planners, analysts and scientists behind the scenes. The military is an essential element of our British national resilience, and people can see this more clearly now than perhaps at any time since the end of national service. I trust that this will reinforce public support for our armed forces and help to redefine a closer relationship between the military and civilian society.
However, I detect a sense of frustration from the Secretary of State in his statement. The Government have been too slow to act at every stage of the pandemic, and too slow to make the fullest use of the armed forces, as I and others on both sides of the House have argued since the summer. During the first lockdown, the covid support force was 20,000 strong, yet fewer than 4,000 were deployed. The winter support force numbers 14,000, yet now, even with what the Secretary of State calls
“the most significant domestic operation in peacetime”,
just 5,000 are being used, with only 56 military aid requests currently in place. How many of the 14,000 troops does the Secretary of State expect to be deployed by the end of the month, as we confront the gravest period of this pandemic to date?
On vaccinations, it is very welcome that from this week the armed forces are finally being used to help deliver the nation’s No. 1 priority, the national vaccination programme. The Secretary of State has said that 250 teams of medical personnel are on stand-by, and yet only one in 10 is set to be posted this week to the seven NHS regions in England. When will they all be deployed and working to get vaccines into people’s arms? We in Labour are proud that Britain was the first country in the world to get the vaccine, and we want Britain to be the first to complete the vaccinations. We want the Government to succeed. Does the Secretary of State accept that military medical teams can do much more to help?
On testing, we also welcome the work being done across the UK to reinforce community testing, from Kirklees to Kent and in the devolved Administrations. Fifteen hundred personnel had also been provided to support schools with covid testing. Now that schools have moved to online teaching, what changes are being made to those plans? When infection rates come down, testing will again be vital to control the virus. Yet the £22 billion NHS track and trace service is still failing to do the necessary job. There is no military aid agreement in place for Test and Trace, so may I suggest that the Secretary of State offers military help to get the outfit sorted out?
Finally, I turn to service personnel themselves. MOD figures confirm that the average number of tests for defence personnel since April has been just 1,900 a week. With 5,000 troops now deployed on covid tasks in the UK and more on essential operations or training overseas, what system is in place to ensure that those personnel are tested regularly, and what plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that they are also properly vaccinated?
The challenge of covid to this country is unprecedented. Yesterday, the chief medical officer said that we are
“facing the most dangerous situation anyone can remember”,
so, if the Secretary of State seeks to expand the role of the military in defeating this virus, he should know that he will have our full support.