Armed forces ‘will do whatever is needed’ to support vaccination programme

George Ryan, Richard Wheeler, Sophie Morris, Lewis McKenzie, PA
·3-min read

The armed forces “will do whatever is needed” to make sure the Covid-19 vaccine reaches every part of the UK, the Defence Secretary said.

Ben Wallace told the Commons that the armed forces are working “to help any one of the four nations”, while defence minister James Heappey confirmed 10,725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been delivered to Gibraltar with plans for thousands more to reach other British overseas territories in the coming days.

During defence questions, Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) said: “Scotland is lagging badly behind when it comes to the rollout of the vaccine. Clearly, all of us want to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible. What can our excellent armed forces do to sort this very worrying situation?”

The main entrance to the coronavirus mass vaccine centre at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre
The main entrance to the coronavirus mass vaccine centre at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

Mr Wallace replied: “We as a United Kingdom armed forces are here to help and we will do whatever is needed to help any one of the four nations of the United Kingdom. The amazing thing about the United Kingdom, the most successful political union in history, is that we are here to help each other seamlessly.

“An 80-year-old in need of a vaccine in London has the same in common as an 80-year-old in need of a vaccine in Caithness. Our armed forces is all our armed forces and we won’t be playing petty nationalist politics in defeating this evil virus.”

Earlier, responding to Conservative Henry Smith (Crawley), Mr Heappey said: “Defence has to date delivered 10,725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Gibraltar as mentioned by my honourable friend.

“Further deliveries are planned to the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar by the end of today of 6,825 Pfizer doses and 3,000 AstraZeneca doses respectively.

“Defence is scoping the delivery of 65,850 further vaccine doses to Ascension Island, Gibraltar and the Falklands throughout February – and of course, we stand ready to support vaccine delivery to all of the British territories overseas.”

The RFA Argus off the coast of Honduras
The RFA Argus off the coast of Honduras (Robert Oates/PA Media)

Senior Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said a UK hospital ship should be deployed to help with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in developing countries.

He added: “If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the value of spare capacity – the built-in resilience to deal with the unexpected.

“And with that in mind, could I invite the Defence Secretary to look at deploying RFA Argus, our hospital ship, and other military assets to assist with the international rollout of vaccines to developing countries?”

Mr Wallace said RFA Argus has just returned home after helping in the Caribbean with an anti-drugs operation.

Later, Conservative MP Simon Jupp (East Devon) asked if non-medical armed forces personnel were being trained to administer vaccines.

Responding, Mr Heappey said: “We have many team medics who are trained in advanced first aid and are well used to injecting morphine with some urgency on the battlefield. We’re looking at how we might train them to be part of the vaccination process.”

SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald asked whether the UK Government would commit to providing a £500 thank-you payment to armed forces personnel for their work during the pandemic.

He told MPs: “Well I can tell (Mr Heappey), my inbox tells a rather different story. What they want is to be paid properly, to have decent working conditions and employment conditions and their families to be supported better.

“But let me ask this to the minister – all of those NHS and social care workers that they’re working alongside in Scotland will receive a £500 thank you payment from the Scottish Government.

“Will he match that for all UK personnel working here and abroad to help fight the pandemic in the upcoming Budget? Yes or no?”

Mr Heappey replied: “I will of course have a look at what that might mean if he in return will consider taxing armed forces less than the Scottish Government currently does.”