As the Covid-19 picture changes rapidly, the Defence Force says it is in a high state of readiness. David Williams reports

Military planners and specialist staff are already working in government agencies to help with the Covid-19 response. But the Defence Force says it’s ready to take a larger role, should it be needed.

After the deadly 2011 earthquake, the military was deployed to Christchurch to help police and Civil Defence, including unarmed cordon security in the central city and conducting patrols. It was the largest Defence operation on home soil.

At the height of the operation, 1800 Defence personnel, mainly the Army, were involved, as well as 10 Air Force aircraft and four Navy ships. A makeshift mortuary was established at Burnham Military Camp, about 20km south of the city.

Overseas forces are already being used in response to Covid-19.

In Singapore, the army is tracking quarantine compliance. United States Army researchers are working to develop and test experimental vaccines, while it is also providing medical equipment and supplies in at least 18 states. It has also dispatched hospital ships on the east and west coasts.

In the United Kingdom – where pubs, restaurants and clubs are closed – military planners are helping local councils with response plans to ensure the most vulnerable people isolated at home get food and medicines. An extra 20,000 military personnel there have been placed on standby.

Asked what preparations it is making for Covid-19, the Defence Force provided an emailed statement from an anonymised spokesperson.

“So far, the Defence Force has deployed a small number — totalling about 20 — planners and other specialist staff to aid in the response. This number has built up over recent weeks to the current level. These personnel have been deployed to all-of-government centres helping manage the response, and to specific government agencies.”

Readiness a standing requirement

The military can fulfill various capabilities, from transport aircraft and vehicles, through to trained personnel helping government agencies. “As a relatively small military, the NZDF maintains high states of readiness. This is not unique to the current situation, this is a standing requirement of the Government.”

Deployment for specific tasks would be at the request of civil authorities, the statement says. “The Defence Force remains ready to do so.”

A big potential headache within the military is protecting its personnel from the virus. Physical distancing might be unusual for forces used to working close together, often in cramped quarters.

Two weeks ago, US army personnel in South Korea and Italy were ordered to “stop movement” because of coronavirus. Late last week, the US army had 45 coronavirus cases in the United States and 35 in Europe.

This country’s Defence Force says the main preparation undertaken so far for Covid-19 has been to look after the health and safety of its personnel. “This is so we have the personnel available to aid the civil authorities where required, and to maintain our other commitments.

“These steps have included communicating health advice to all staff, and issuing guidance on remote working where that is possible. Like the rest of New Zealand, our staff are following Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade guidelines to avoid all non-essential travel and to self-isolate upon returning to New Zealand.”

Defence Minister Ron Mark, of New Zealand First, wasn’t available for an interview. But the Defence Force statement says: “The NZDF is continuing to actively engage with other Government agencies as the situation develops.”

Last Thursday, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the Defence Force was part of cross-government planning. “We had a discussion yesterday about, for example, the medical, nursing and medics staff in the Defence Force. Their primary focus is on keeping the Defence Force well and working. Obviously there may be a time when we need to deploy the Defence Force, they’re very much part of the planning.”

For the sake of completeness, Defence says it’s able to fulfill its standing commitments, including dealing with unexploded bombs, and search and rescue operations.

The Defence Force has, across the Navy, Army and Air Force, slightly more than 12,000 personnel, comprising 9350 regular forces and 2700 reservists. More than 3000 civilians also have Defence jobs.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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