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Speech: Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey MP: The Ministry of Defence Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

Ministry Of Defence

July 15
16:13 2020

Ladies and gentlemen, Im delighted to speak to you today about the MODs response to the Covid pandemic.

The beginning of the year already feels like a lifetime ago. And its hard to remember that, back in January, Covid wasnt really in the news.

Equally, whats also, perhaps, hard to remember, is that period when Covid was very much in the news for being overseas but not yet here

With the numbers of cases rising alarmingly in Italy and horrendous pictures on our TV screens of overstretched Italian intensive care units, the nation was genuinely concerned about Covid. About how we would make up for the lack of intensive care beds. And about how would we procure and distribute the billions of items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that would be needed.

As our plans to respond to the pandemic developed, we were confronted by the challenges of delivering millions of meals to the many vulnerable people who would be shielded.

And, as our response developed further still, we wanted to know how we would achieve the testing of hundreds of thousands of people per day.

Make no mistake. When those lines of activity and the many moving parts, both in the UK and abroad, were brought together this became a logistical and operational challenge the like of which we hadnt seen since the end of World War 2.

Now, all of these challenges, were fundamentally owned by Other Government Departments. And I am keen to say up front that the work of my colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Defra, the Treasury and elsewhere has been truly extraordinary.

That said RUSI has invited me here today to talk about Defences contribution. So youll forgive me if I speak with some pride over what weve achieved whilst supporting those other departments

Whether that was creating new mechanisms for the procurement and distribution of PPE

developing vast Nightingale hospitals from London to Manchester, Birmingham to Bristol so that thousands more intensive care beds were available

providing additional clinicians from the Defence Medical Services to meet the increasing demand on the wards

designing and establishing the structures that could test hundreds of thousands of people a day.

Or whether it was embedding planners in every local authority to co-ordinate our response at all levels.

This wasnt our fight and so, rightly, our soldier, sailors, airmen and air women were not the ones on the TV screens.

The real heroes of this crisis were our NHS and our wider public services.

But behind them over 14,000 military and civilian personnel from within the MOD have stood tall. Im grateful for all theyve done.

Today I would like to delve into the detail with five vignettes showing-off just some of this fantastic work.

Let me begin with Major Eb Mukhtar.

In his civilian job Eb leads operations for Google shopping. But in his spare-time he serves with the Reserves as a Staff Officer with National Reserve HQ attached to 16 Air Assault Brigade in Colchester. And when his nation needed him Eb really stepped up.

Realising that the shortage of PPE meant that many smaller health care providers couldnt receive the necessary equipment from their traditional suppliers, Eb, working in conjunction with E-bay, designed an e-portal that allowed up to 45,000 different users including NHS customers and GPs to access the NHS supply chain.

Next I want to draw attention to the efforts of soldiers from 66 Works Group Royal Engineers.

They recognised a gap in testing coverage and developed the concept of the Mobile Testing Unit in just under seven days.

After adopting a Scrapheap Challenge approach in a Royal Engineer workshop, they transformed crew transport vans into the specialised MTUs being used today.

From engineers to our brilliant DSTL scientists working at Porton Down.

They didnt just enhance the UKs testing capacity, they addressed another very basic challenge.

PPE face masks used by the NHS must fit properly, so a special spray helps medics determine whether the masks both fit and can resist droplets expelled by patients.

But the spray used to test those masks was unavailable in the time frame. So a new solution had to be found. Enter DSTL. They developed and manufactured sufficient spray to help tackle this challenge and protect NHS clinicians on the frontline.

Meanwhile, our colleagues over at Defence Equipment and Support were immensely active in procurement.

They established a special team that enabled the Department for Health and Social Care to approve and place an order for almost 10 billion items of PPE - many hard to soure - worth 5.3 billion with suppliers across the world.

Through their Defence Logistic Hub at Donnington, they also distributed more than 10,500 different pieces of critical medical care including more than 3,700 ventilators.

Not only did they adapt Air Separation Units used by aircrew to treat COVID-19 patients, but they worked with industry and the RAF to use 3-D printing technology to improve face masks for frontline NHS staff.

Finally, there is what CDS likes to call our neural network.

By which he means the embedded expertise that we plugged into Public Health England and the NHS, and into our national, regional and local partner organisations.

Between them they helped bolster plans to delay, contain and manage the impact of the virus across different sectors.

They brought specialist assistance in everything from medical, logistics and engineering to data analytics, problem solving and information management.

Together they ensured the national response functioned at scale and moved at pace.

But it would be wrong for me to imply our people were exclusively busy on the home front.

They also provided tireless support to local government and civil authorities in our overseas territories.

In Gibraltar, they assisted with logistics and planning as well as bringing in essential food and medicine.

In the Falkland Islands, they brought their medical expertise as well as supplies and an oxygen generation plant.

After departing earlier than planned, the crew of RFA Argus and HMS Medway have spent the last few months supporting countries in the Caribbean tackling Coronavirus. And they are still there now ready to assist in any relief effort required during hurricane season.

In Ascension and St Helena, our people delivered vital kit and in the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Cayman Islands they provided essential security assistance.

Now were on the road to getting Coronavirus effectively under control in the UK, the question for us is how we support other countries around the globe who are still at the peak of the pandemic.

Throughout this unprecedented crisis, our Armed Forces have continued to maintain our nations resilience.

Our adversaries have continued to test us during this difficult time and, if anything, the global environment has become even more competitive.

But our brave Defence personnel have continued to keep our nation safe, maintaining our nuclear deterrent and protecting our sovereign airspace and territorial waters while countering the international terrorist threat from Daesh and deterring malign state and non-state actors.

Even as Coronavirus raged, our aircraft continued to police NATO airspace.

Our flagship aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was able to remain at sea for over 10 weeks so that her crew could complete operational training with minimal risk of infection taking us one step closer to the carrier strike capability that can project British Influence across the globe.

All the while, we have continued training and generating the forces required for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if the reduced tempo meant they havent yet needed to deploy.

And we have done so in a disciplined way respecting social distancing and minimising the risk to our people.

All this has been a monumental effort.

And today is my opportunity to place on record our appreciation for the awesome work of our military and civilian workforce.

Those who put duty to our country ahead of spending time with their families during the pandemic.

Those who never stopped stepping up.

And arguably even more impressively those who quietly worked in the background keeping the Defence of our nation going whilst the nations attention was on Covid-19.

Thank you all for keeping us safe.

But, ladies and gentlemen, RUSI is a serious academic institution and you havent invited me to speak to you simply to express my pride in the exceptional effort of our Armed Forces.

You want me, rightly, to offer some more considered thoughts on what we can learn from this crisis.

Moreover, there will be lessons we must learn around the resilience of defence and the nation which should inform our Integrated Review of foreign, defence, security and development policy.

So now let me touch on just a few of those lessons:

First, there is the importance of mass.

As was widely reported 20,000 service personnel were placed at high readiness during the crisis. Including

.1,000 people standing by in case our prison service needed support

.1,500 drivers ready to deliver essential supplies

.and 10,000 individuals able to step in at short notice to support the police.

In the end none of those contingencies were activated and the highest number of service personnel deployed in response to Covid at any one time was 4,82

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