Rising unemployment caused by Covid-19 offers a chance to boost armed forces recruitment, a defence minister has suggested.
James Heappey replied “emphatically, yes” when asked if he agreed “now is a better time than ever to sign up” to a career in the military.
Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew said now is an “opportunity to recruit” after highlighting a rise in jobless 18 to 24-year-olds caused by the pandemic.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Heappey said the armed forces hit 93% of its recruiting target in 2019/20 “despite Covid disrupting the end of the year”.
He added: “Whilst the armed forces are doing excellent work to continue that success, Covid has had an initial impact on training throughflow this year.
“In the short-term therefore we expect to see lower throughflow, however, early signs are that this will be mitigated by improved retention and very encouragingly a good flow of re-joiners.”
Mr Mayhew (Broadland) then asked: “As a response to Covid, we’ve seen the unemployment figures start to rise and that’s particularly reflected in the 18 to 24-year-old demographic.
“Does the Government agree this is an opportunity to recruit, perhaps even to meet our full-time trained requirement for the first time since the year 2000?
“Does (Mr Heappey) agree that a career in the armed forces represents an excellent life choice and now is a better time than ever to sign-up?”
Mr Heappey responded: “Emphatically, yes.”
Defence Minister @JSHeappey gave an update today in #DefenceOrals on Armed Forces recruitment: “During the 2019/20 recruiting year, the Armed Forces hit 93% of our inflow target despite COVID disrupting the end of the year – recruitment was 31% up from 2018/19".
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) September 21, 2020
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also insisted the Government is prepared to meet the challenges of Covid-19 and “any second eventuality”.
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, called for “greater use of our senior armed forces to help advance Whitehall’s strategic thinking, operational planning and delivery as well as clarity of the message”.
He added: “Following the briefings this morning in Number 10, arguably the biggest threat facing this nation is actually Covid-19 and with cases once again rising we must learn lessons from the first spike, and it’s clear that the bandwidth, the capacity of all governments, including the UK’s, are being tested by this enduring emergency.”
Responding, Mr Wallace said: “Backed up with people like defence intelligence we have already started planning for any second eventuality.
“Whether that is a second wave, whether that is not a wave but an alternative challenge, whether it is winter pressures, whether it is floods, whether it is Brexit.
“All of that is ongoing. I’m confident that the men and women will be able to deliver whatever demands are put on government.”
Mr Wallace later said the safety of war veterans will be key to plans for remembrance events.
For Labour, shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “Yesterday’s Battle of Britain commemoration inside Westminster Abbey saw just 79 people invited rather than 2,200 as planned.
“Remembrance Day ceremonies in seven weeks’ time are unthinkable without so many of those who served in our armed forces.
“Can the Secretary if State say what special guidance he will give to make sure those ceremonies at cenotaphs across the country can go ahead safely and respectfully?”
Mr Wallace said he is working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to get the guidance, adding: “Of course some of the veterans’ community are the most elderly and vulnerable at present, and we have to make sure whatever we do we protect them in those services of remembrance.”
He said he rang veterans who could not attend VE Day events, adding: “I’ll share with the House as soon as we’ve worked out the plans.”