The shadow defence secretary called on the government to do “everything it can” to protect the British armed forces from coronavirus – and make public the number of times service personnel have been tested for the disease.
John Healey wrote to the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, amid concerns about a lack of transparency with the British military and after serious outbreaks of the respiratory disease on US and French warships.
“Coronavirus is showing again how our armed forces help keep us safe. It is vital the government does everything it can to keep them safe too,” the Labour MP wrote in a letter shared with the Guardian.
The Labour spokesman asked why the UK “does not publish data on testing of military personnel, whereas other countries such as the US do”, and demanded that Wallace make testing – and its results – widely available.
A growing number of soldiers, currently about 3,000, are helping carry out a number of frontline tasks in the UK, including 200 working in the ambulance services, as well as assisting the emergency delivery of protective equipment, oxygen and ventilators for hospitals.
Symptoms are defined by the NHS as either:
NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.
If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.
After 14 days, anyone you live with who does not have symptoms can return to their normal routine. But, if anyone in your home gets symptoms, they should stay at home for 7 days from the day their symptoms start. Even if it means they’re at home for longer than 14 days.
If you live with someone who is 70 or over, has a long-term condition, is pregnant or has a weakened immune system, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.
If you have to stay at home together, try to keep away from each other as much as possible.
After 7 days, if you no longer have a high temperature you can return to your normal routine.
If you still have a high temperature, stay at home until your temperature returns to normal.
If you still have a cough after 7 days, but your temperature is normal, you do not need to continue staying at home. A cough can last for several weeks after the infection has gone.
Staying at home means you should:
You can use your garden, if you have one. You can also leave the house to exercise – but stay at least 2 metres away from other people.
If you have symptoms of coronavirus, use the NHS 111 coronavirus service to find out what to do.
Source: NHS England on 23 March 2020
Soldiers placed on standby have complained they are being housed in confined barracks conditions, where social distancing measures are not always practised, particularly during exercises and in training.
The MoD has so far refused to make public how many coronavirus tests it has undertaken, or how many personnel have tested positive. Three weeks ago, sources said there had been fewer than 10 cases, but that figure is well out of date.
Nearly 600 sailors serving onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier tested positive for coronavirus – one of whom died – after an outbreak got out of control in the confines of the warship.
About 40 cases of coronavirus were detected last week onboard the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which had been taking part in Nato exercises in Denmark with Royal Navy ships.
Healey asked in the light of “the concerning reports” involving the US and French warships if Wallace would “postpone large-scale training exercises” where social distancing could not be practised to avoid similar outbreaks.
Armed forces personnel dealing with members of the public suspected of being ill with coronavirus should also have appropriate personal protective equipment, he added, asking if Wallace would spell out what equipment was available to soldiers deployed alongside or in partnership with paramedics and other NHS workers.
Wallace has been a relatively low-profile minister during the coronavirus crisis. After spending a week in self-isolation in March suffering from symptoms of the disease, he returned to work at the beginning of April saying he had recovered from his illness, although he did not take a test to confirm he had been infected.
The defence secretary met his Nato counterparts in a special video conference on Wednesday afternoon to discuss how the military alliance can respond to the coronavirus crisis. Ministers discussed the importance of Nato continuing its core function of western defence while member countries were also deploying personnel at home.
The UK provides 800 troops to the ongoing defence of Estonia against Russia, while the RAF contributes to the air defence of the Baltic states from Lithuania. Wallace also promised to supply two experts in countering disinformation to formation of a Nato coronavirus communications hub.
It also emerged Downing Street had paused work on the planned integrated review of defence and foreign policy due to the pressing need to focus on the coronavirus crisis, according to a letter written by Alex Ellis, the deputy national security adviser, to the defence select committee.