COVID: Military Shouldn't Be 'Default First Responder', MPs Warn

An immediate reliance on the British military during the coronavirus pandemic must not become the default for civilian authorities during future crises, MPs have warned.

More than a year since defence first responded to a COVID support request from the civil authorities, the Defence Select Committee said civilian contingency plans have been "found wanting".

Although the contribution of the forces since March 2020 was said to be deserving of a formal award and an increase in future pay settlements, the committee stated the military must not become the "default first responder" in similar scenarios, covering for inadequate planning.

The list of tasks performed by military personnel during the pandemic has included increasing hospital capacity, procuring protective equipment and ventilators and developing and implementing mobile and mass testing programmes.

Personnel have also repatriated UK citizens from abroad, providing evacuation aircraft to outlying regions and planning for vaccine distribution and administration.

The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that its role during the outbreak is one of support, particularly to the NHS.

"They contributed capacity and personnel but, most significantly, a different mindset which was more focused on objective rather than process," the committee said.

MPs suggested this, together with the success of the military's vaccine task force, should lead to a "fundamental rethink" about the operation of Government.

The Defence Select Committee also found that some civil agencies did not understand what capabilities defence could offer and how to request them.

"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," said the MPs.

All three services have been involved in the UK's COVID-19 response (Picture: MOD).
All three services have been involved in the UK's COVID-19 response (Picture: MOD).

The MPs described a "disconnect" between the assessment of the threat of an infectious disease pandemic and planning for its occurrence – urging for this to be "addressed at any future public inquiry into the UK's response".

A pandemic event had been included in the UK National Risk Register, although the virus envisaged was influenza rather than coronavirus.

While calling for a "no-holds-barred self-examination" from the Government, Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood praised military efforts which have carried through to 2021.

"Despite the darkness of the past year, we have seen countless acts of heroism and resilience in the face of adversity," he said.

"Our Armed Forces rose to the challenge of coronavirus, demonstrating outstanding strength and stoicism.

"The integral efforts of all key workers, including those of the Armed Forces, must be explicitly and materially recognised by the Government," he added.

Mr Ellwood also warned that plans to shrink the Army could leave the country less able to respond to a future crisis.

"This year we've seen the importance of boots on the ground.

"The Government's recent decision to reduce troop numbers should concern us all, potentially leaving us ill-prepared for the next major national security crisis."

The committee said the Armed Forces should now be used to continue to distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccinations at home and abroad.