Our debt to the Army over vaccine, floods and storm responses – Patrick Mercer

WHY should we be cheerful whilst all around the country’s furious at both the Prime Minister and the lockdown that may soon be upon us?

Soldiers building a Covid vaccine centre last year - but should they be more deployed more frequently by Ministers?
Soldiers building a Covid vaccine centre last year - but should they be more deployed more frequently by Ministers?

Cheerful as the temperature drops, the rain tips down and the Sherry bottle runs dry? Well, I’ll give you almost 200,000 reasons not only to be cheerful, but also grateful – our wonderful Armed Forces!

Now, while other government departments wring their hands about health and safety, overtime, protocols (by the way, what are these ‘‘protocol’’ thingys which seem to apply to everything from nappy changing to Brexit?) and trades’ union rules, our troops just get on with it.

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It’s been a while since I’ve had to do it myself, but today’s youngsters in uniform are no different: they thrive on rough and tumble, difficult conditions and being able to do the impossible no matter how uncomfortable or dangerous.

This was the military responding to the Calderdale floods in Mytholmroyd in February 2020.

Along with this mentality goes an ability to read the future and to prepare personnel, vehicles, weapons and equipment for operations that might happen and to be ready to do them at the drop of a hat. The Forces make an art form of contingency planning, but that hasn’t stopped them being used by the Government in some mighty ham-fisted ways.

So many of you reading this will have painful memories of the flooding in South Yorkshire in November 2019 or Calderdale in February 2020. I’m also quite sure that you were thankful for the brawn and hearty skill of the soldiers who turned up to fill sandbags, pump, protect and evacuate folk from their homes.

But why did they take so long to arrive? I know for a fact that 2 Royal Anglian were champing at the bit but were delayed by bureaucracy and politicking that baffled them.

I’ve also been dumbfounded by some of the things that have gone on during the Covid crisis. Why, for instance, wasn’t the Royal Feet Auxiliary Argus hospital ship brought into the Pool of London, Liverpool or Leith during the early months of 2020?

The military were integral to the construction of Harrogate's Nightingale Hospital last year.

She only provides about 100 beds, but all the crew are trained in biological warfare and – obviously – medical procedures. Similarly, the website of Aldershot based 22 Field Hospital tells that it has “… the most up to date medical equipment that you will find in some of the best NHS hospitals. This provides a trauma facility that can be put out on the ground and set up within 24 hours”.

Why, then, did the Yorkshire and Humberside Nightingale Hospital in Harrogate last year take 11 days from initial planning to being ready to receive its first patient if required?

I haven’t the slightest doubt that if the Forces had been told to do it, the sick would have been treated quickly and effectively and once the need had subsided, they would have packed up and gone back to base rapidly, cheerfully and ready for the next time.

Although there certainly wouldn’t have been all the political ballyhoo, our sailors, airmen and soldiers don’t need limelight – they just need the satisfaction of doing their duty and doing it well.

Do you have confidence in Boris Johnson's response to the Covid crisis?

I was also speechless when, this time last year, my local newspaper announced that the first tranche of vaccines had arrived in Newark on a Friday lunchtime and the vaccination centres would be ready to go… the following Tuesday! Wasn’t this crucial, I asked, a race against time to contain a deadly disease? I was told there were ‘‘protocols’’ (what?) to be followed and besides, there were not enough vaccinators.

Yet, there were thousands of servicemen and women available, all of whom had received at least basic medical instruction – including the use of hypodermic needles – who could be given refresher training by their own medics and deployed anywhere at any time of the day or night. And, just like the flooding, commanding officers told me that they’d already started their own training packages and were poised for action. Yet only in the last, few months have we seen military vaccinators in action and even then in very modest numbers.

If you want to see the other face of the coin though, just look at the magnificent way that men and women from all three Services responded to the final evacuation of Afghanistan.

Leaving the shocking lack of political acumen aside for a moment, our boys and girls acted with muscular compassion that brought record numbers of frightened, threadbare Afghans to sanctuary and allowed Britain to keep its head above the chaos and butchery that surrounded the whole debacle.

So, when you’re eating the leftover turkey and toying with the last of After Eight chocolates, think about our troops in Somalia and South Sudan, in Iraq and Ukraine facing danger and hardship.

And don’t forget the jabbers and drivers who are striving to get Britain back on her feet; and when you’ve done that, thank God for these kids in khaki and blue who’ll graft without overtime, fanfare or thanks.

Patrick Mercer is a former soldier and
ex-Tory MP for Newark.

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