The Government has announced up to 20,000 military personnel will be put on standby to support the public services as part of a new Covid Support Force. This Commons Library briefing paper looks at when the armed forces can be deployed in the UK and how this might apply during the Coronavirus pandemic.

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When can the armed forces be deployed in the UK?

Civil authorities take the lead in responding to any emergencies or non-military threats to the safety and security of the UK and its citizens. Government departments or civil authorities may call upon the armed forces to assist in the planning for or response to an emergency. This is known as Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA). Ministerial approval is required except when life is considered to be immediately at risk.

Defending the UK against military threats is distinct to MACA and is not the subject of this briefing paper.

Will the armed forces be deployed in response to covid-19?

On 19 March 2020 the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced a new Covid Support Force’ (CSF). The MoD has put an additional 10,000 military personnel at a higher readiness and placed Reserves on standby to support public services. An existing 10,000 personnel are already held at higher readiness, meaning that up to 20,000 personnel will be available if needed.

What will the CSF do?

The CSF may be called upon to provide a range of support to other government departments or civil authorities. From Monday 23 March 150 personnel will be trained to drive oxygen tankers in order to support the NHS if required. Specialist staff are supporting the Government’s wider response: specialist military planners are supporting Local Resilience Forums while scientists from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) are supporting Public Health England.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously suggested the army could backfill the police if required.

What if military personnel contract covid-19?

The Times reported on 19 March 2020 that the MoD has made contingency plans for up to 20 per cent of its CSF to contract the illness. Some personnel with essential skills will be put into quarantine to ensure they do not become infected.

Have other countries deployed their armed forces during the coronavirus pandemic?

Yes. The french military have used specialist transport, equipped with intensive care facilities, to move critical ill patients to military hospitals. The Italian military has helped transport bodies from an overwhelmed crematoriam to neighbouring provinces in northern Italy.

What is the legal basis?

The legal authority to use Service personnel in operations under Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) is governed by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and the Emergency Powers Act 1964 (Section 2). In addition, service personnel can deploy under the Royal Prerogative for military tasks.

What sort of things might the armed forces do?

Military personnel can be called upon to assist civil authorities for a wide-range of tasks. But broadly speaking the military may be called upon in an emergency:

  • for their niche capabilities
  • general support when civil authorities’ capacity/capability is overwhelmed by an incident
  • in preparation for major national events

Military personnel may be called out in a wide-variety of tasks, from bomb disposal to helping with flood relief. Or for national events like the 2012 Olympic Games, G8 or NATO Summit.

Military personnel have also supported the police in response to terror threats or attacks, for example after the attacks in Manchester in May 2017.

Defence provided support to the civil authorities on over 120 occasions in 2018-2019.

Do soldiers carry their weapons?

Very rarely. Explicit authorisation is required for personnel to be armed.

Can soldiers arrest people?

Responsibility for law enforcement lies with the police and the Home Office. The MoD guidance is clear that all MACA operations must be conducted within the law. Unlike the police, Service personnel have the same powers of arrest as ordinary citizens.

The Ministry of Defence does have a specialist armed police force (the MDP). There has been no mention of the MDP in relation to the coronavirus pandemic.

Who pays?

With a few exceptions, MACA activity is not funded from the Defence budget. As such, the Ministry of Defence can recover the costs involved, depending on the assistance required. There is no cost involved if an immediate military intervention is required to prevent the loss of life. Full costs are recovered for non-emergency, planned routine support.

Further resources:

Library briefing paper Dealing with civil contingencies: emergency planning in the UK, CBP08016, looks at emergency planning in the UK: the responsibilities of each of the responding agencies and how those fit within the framework for planning for and responding to civil contingencies laid down by Government.

Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP 02) Operations in the UK: defence contribution to resilience outlines the contribution of the armed forces to UK resilience. The third edition was published in February 2017 and is the primary source for this briefing paper.

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