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Manpower or mindset: Defence’s contribution to the UK’s pandemic response – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report with recommendations to the Government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Defence Committee

Date Published: 25 March 2020




The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, which emerged from China in late 2019 and evolved into a global pandemic over the following months is the most serious peacetime emergency the UK has faced in a century. While the UK National Risk Register had identified a (flu) pandemic as a serious risk, the preparations which had ostensibly been made for the emergence of an infectious disease were found wanting. This resulted in a range of actions being taken to overcome these shortcomings including changes to decision-making structures and the need to enhance medical capacity. As part of this response, the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces were asked to assist.

The Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces have a long history of supporting the civil authorities during a crisis. The longest running military operation in British history - support to the civil authorities in Northern Ireland (Operation Banner) - continuously ran for almost 40 years. While the Ministry of Defence is typically a supporting rather than a lead department in the response to civil emergencies, it, along with the Armed Forces, has a range of capabilities and skills that can be employed in a crisis. Since 2000 the Armed Forces have been called upon to assist with the foot and mouth epidemic, flooding, counter-terrorism, fire brigade strikes and the 2012 Olympics.

There is a well-established policy and set of processes by which civilian bodies can request military help, under the rubric of ‘Military Assistance to the Civil Authorities’. Defence can offer specialist skills such as bomb disposal and civil engineering but can also provide a mass of trained and disciplined manpower which can be deployed to meet an emergency at short notice. An emerging lesson from the experience of the pandemic is that some civil agencies do not understand the capabilities Defence can offer, nor how to request them effectively. Further, Defence should not be used as a means of backfilling for inadequate preparation and resourcing by the civilian bodies which have a statutory responsibility to meet crises.

Since the emergence of the disease in the UK in late January 2020, the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces have made a vital contribution to the UK’s response at all levels including the Devolved Administrations and local government. Thus far they have assisted with increasing hospital capacity, procuring protective equipment and ventilators, developing and implementing mobile and mass testing programmes, repatriating UK citizens from abroad, providing aeromedical evacuation aircraft to outlying regions and planning for vaccine distribution and administration. They contributed capacity and personnel but, most significantly, a different mindset which was more focussed on objective rather than process. The experience of this and the Vaccine Taskforce must lead to a fundamental rethink of the effective operation of Government which task should be taken forward by other Select Committees.

In parallel, the Ministry of Defence has continued to deliver its other core objectives, including the maintenance of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, the deployment of forces in support of NATO in the Baltic States and the operation of Quick Reaction Aircraft to defend UK airspace. It has continued to do so while ensuring Defence personnel are protected from the coronavirus. In collaboration with the defence industry, the Department has also sought to minimise the impact of the pandemic on its major procurement programmes.

In light of the UK’s pandemic response to date, the Government should:

  • Explicitly and tangibly recognise the vital contribution made by uniformed and civilian Defence personnel to the UK’s pandemic response
  • Use Defence capabilities and resources to distribute and administer vaccinations at home and abroad.
  • Strengthen civil crisis response capabilities to ensure Defence does not become the ‘responder of first resort’.
  • Better educate civilian bodies about what Defence can and cannot do, and the unique capabilities it can offer in a crisis;
  • Ensure that the implications of the pandemic for Defence and national resilience are fully considered by the Integrated Review
  • Undertake a wide-ranging lessons learned exercise into the pandemic and make the process and conclusions of this public.