HMS Defender, one of the UK’s newest destroyers, scored a pretty successful media victory in its navigation of the waters off Crimea on Wednesday. Moscow said it was a deliberate invasion of Russian territorial waters, an “unacceptable provocation” with “no options ruled out” if it happened again.
Boris Johnson said the ship was “sailing legally in Ukrainian waters”. Despite claims to the contrary, Russian ships and planes didn’t fire warning shots.
But this was a real clash of propaganda with the Moscow machine broadcasting worldwide. By coincidence the Royal Navy had BBC and Daily Mail correspondents on HMS Defender.
By the time the Ministry of Defence could get its story out — it took two hours — another, less flattering side of UK defence management was being debated in the Commons. Ministers were being challenged about why UK forces had not been fully vaccinated against Covid before going on operations, including the dangerous UN peace mission in Mali and the Task Force deployment with the carrier Queen Elizabeth, including HMS Defender. The urgent question was posed by defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood and was provoked by a front page article in Monday’s Standard.
In it, I reported that the Mali force had been affected significantly by a Covid outbreak early this year. Armed Forces minister James Heappey said the forces going on operations hadn’t been fully vaccinated, and full vaccination of the carrier task group was only being completed this month. About half the new Mali UN contingent from the UK still hadn’t been vaccinated twice. “You could hear an audible gasp round the chamber,” an MP reported.
Heappey said the MoD was being guided by Public Health England with vaccinations carried out in age groups. Only “niche” forces such as the Trident submarine crews got priority.
Heappey, like his boss Ben Wallace, like to refer to their service as junior officers in the Army. In their time and now, commanders had to ensure maximum force protection, including full vaccination coverage, as well as a duty of care to those under their command.
The casual approach to vaccination suggests a leadership deficit — and a breach of the fundamental Military Covenant. The deployment of UK service men and women are matters of command, credibility and trust and not just a photo opportunity.
Robert Fox is the Evening Standard’s Defence Editor