Christmas could be postponed for 10,000 troops as Covid, Brexit and floods leaves army “overstretched”.
The Ministry of Defence has set aside a winter support force of 7,500 personnel to support other Whitehall departments with another 2,000 deployed to Liverpool for the city-wide mass testing pilot.
Soldiers have also been readied to tackle serious flooding forecasted across the UK and for the end of the Brexit transition period, including a “no deal” outcome, on December 31.
Jeremy Quin, defence procurement minister, said that the armed forces are involved in 41 “military aid to the civilian authorities” (Maca) tasks relating to Covid-19.
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Units of the army’s 3rd Division, which is held at high operational readiness, have been told that their Christmas break may be interrupted by a short notice call into action.
Troops can be given as little as 48 hours to prepare for emergency work.
Some will even be required to stay near a camp, to keep their mobile phones on them and have their uniforms and “bergen” rucksacks packed and ready to go.
A defence source said: “Of course some troops might be working over Christmas — we wouldn’t expect doctors and nurses to take it off.”
An army source told The Times : “It’s prudent and judicious planning to make sure we’ve got the nation’s back as an insurance policy if other government departments ask us to do things.
“There’s an expectation that that’s the kind of lifestyle you sign up to. That’s why people join the forces. We’re always on some form of readiness, as plans develop and change. Whether it’s flooding or something else, we’re always there and ready to go.”
Anyone unable to take leave over the holidays will be guaranteed time off in the new year instead, it is understood.
Insiders said the force was “overstretched”, being 9,000 short of its minimum target of 82,000 regular troops.
A source said: “This year could be the perfect storm: Brexit, Covid-19, flooding. There is only so much we can do with a small army, and unless we get a multi-year budget settlement from the chancellor, it could become smaller still.”
The Ministry of Defence said: “The nation’s armed forces will do whatever is necessary to protect this country… Thousands of public servants from the emergency services, the NHS, the armed forces and local government around the country will be on call this Christmas.”
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