Armed forces ‘stand by to help’ during second lockdown

By Sophie Morris, Richard Wheeler and Elizabeth Arnold, PA
·3-min read

The UK’s armed forces “stand by to help” efforts to tackle Covid-19 ahead of a second nationwide lockdown in England.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Commons 7,500 troops have been committed to support “right across the board”, adding: “We always keep that number under review.”

During defence questions, Tory former minister Andrew Jones asked: “Will (Mr Wallace) focus on the additional, the complementary skills that our forces can bring to combat this virus – particularly looking at the speed at which they can act and the speed at which they can be deployed?”

Mr Wallace replied: “What we should make sure we do is always bring to bear the best of our armed forces to help wherever we can right across the board.

“Resilience is defence’s middle name and it is that key part of our skill that we are bringing to support most of Government across the country.”

Coronavirus – Tue Oct 20, 2020
Ben Wallace (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Later, responding to Labour’s shadow defence minister Stephen Morgan, Mr Wallace added: “In the previous lockdown we committed over 10,500 troops – it is 7,500 at the moment, but we always keep that number under review.

“During the last lockdown we only actually used at most about 4,000-5,000 at any one time, but of course we stand by to help.”

Mr Wallace later said he would prefer a multi-year spending settlement for the Ministry of Defence but he recognised the impact of Covid-19.

Last month, the Government confirmed it was scrapping a planned multi-year review to instead hold a one-year review at the end of November.

Conservative MP Peter Bone (Wellingborough) asked: “Could I ask whether you (Mr Wallace) believe not having a multi-year defence settlement would be catastrophic?”

Mr Wallace said: “Last year we didn’t have one either but we got a generous settlement from the Treasury for that one year.

“It is, of course, the case that any department that has a heavy reliance on capital spend prefers a long-term spending commitment from the Treasury – that was true a decade ago, and it is true today.

“That is our preference, however, we are also living in a time of Covid-19, a more than a once-in-a-generation challenge to both the coffers of this country and the conduct of this country, and therefore, as a result, we will have to review each issue as it comes.

“We’re in the middle of a form of negotiation trying to see what the impacts will be of the announcement.”

Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, warned that any delay to the publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy “will send a poor signal to the world”.

Defence Medical Rehab Centre
Tobias Ellwood (Yui Mok/PA)

He said: “I can tell the Secretary of State what a one-year funding settlement will be – it will make the integrated review next to meaningless.

“The PM gave me a direct assurance that the integrated review would not be delayed, and if global Britain is an instruction and not a strapline, then this review is the road map as to how we advance our defence posture, to support our foreign policy ambitions.

“Any delay to its publication with full spending commitments will send a poor signal to the world that we are absolutely serious about re-establishing our global credentials and could actually prompt questions about our justification to retain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.”

Mr Wallace replied: “He raises some interesting observations and, first of all, can I just ask him, like I’ve asked others in the chamber, just to wait until we see what the implications are of the Treasury’s announcement of the one-year review.

“Until that time, I think speculation is what it is, it’s just speculation, but of course he may like to take his message to the next Treasury questions where they too can hear what his views are of the impact.”

Mr Ellwood then shouted: “Says it all, doesn’t it?”