'None of us want lots of draconian measures'

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace tells Sophy Ridge 'I don't think now is the time to throw that away' over COVID progress.

Video Transcript

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, let's now find out what the position is from the government. We can go straight to speak to the Defense Secretary Ben Wallace to get his reaction to that interview with Steve Baker. Mr. Baker says the plan to extend coronavirus powers for another six months is authoritarian, but there should be a path to freedom instead. Why do you want to extend it for that amount of time?

BEN WALLACE: Look, we have, all of us, whether you're NHS workers or the members of the public, made incredible sacrifices over the last year to make sure that we try and get on top of this pandemic. You know, we are in a place at the moment where, unlike many other countries, we have started to get on top of it, slowed the flow into hospitals, started to reduce the tragic loss of life through it, and started to roll out the vaccine at an unprecedented level. I don't think now is the time to throw that away or, potentially, put that at risk. I think now is the time-- the final mile is the most important thing for us all, to make sure that we buckle down, get through the different stages the prime minister set out-- the next one being the 29th of March, and then another one on the 12th of April-- and slowly but surely, all of us together. Make sure we tackle this dreadful pandemic.

SOPHIE RIDGE: I don't think anyone is saying that now is the time to lift restrictions or to stop the powers, but you're talking about extending this for another six months, at a time when, by mid-April, the top nine priority groups should have been vaccinated. They accounted for 99% of deaths in the first wave. Restrictions set to be lifted towards the end of June. Why do you need six more months?

BEN WALLACE: Look, Parliament can put in place powers, and it can always remove powers if it needs to. I think what we want to indicate and signal is, to the public at large, a plan that goes beyond a week-by-week, and a sort of long-term. And therefore, that involves putting certain tools in place. And none of us want to have lots of draconian measures, but this is an unprecedented global pandemic that has cost tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. And therefore, putting those in place is really important.

But of course, you know, as the prime minister has been very, very clear, at each stage, we will be taking assessments from the science, from where we are with this pandemic, and make the steps required. You know, I'm not going to second-guess what happens after June. I think that that would be wrong. And you know, my constituents-- people forget this-- my constituents in Preston have been locked down since the middle of August. They have sacrificed a huge amount to deal with this pandemic. And I really think the first and foremost thing to do is to roll out the vaccines, protect our NHS, and make sure we take it step by step.

And Steve Baker is a good friend of mine. He's a great MP. He's very diligent, and I fully respect his position-- and it's right. The government is always asked about powers that it seeks to take, and we listen to his contribution. And I listened to it just now. But you know, for us as a government, I have to hold the balance between the needs of my constituents to be protected, the needs of the NHS, and, indeed, the needs to get on top of this virus so we can get the economy back up and running.

SOPHIE RIDGE: Just to be clear, you're saying that politicians can impose powers but also remove powers. You're saying that these powers may not last the full six months; you could take them away earlier.

BEN WALLACE: Well, I think that's just going into the realms of speculation. I think what I'm pointing to--

SOPHIE RIDGE: Well, you said that-- you [INAUDIBLE] raised the idea of removing powers.

BEN WALLACE: No, no, Sophie you're saying that-- you know, as if it's a one-way street. I think you were trying to imply that just because we're going to put powers in place, that somehow that means it will definitely, definitely be there for a very long time. I think the point is we're going to put the powers in place to deal with the pandemic and the measures that we think need to be implemented and complied with, and--

SOPHIE RIDGE: So they could be removed.

BEN WALLACE: [INAUDIBLE] and we take those [INAUDIBLE]. But they could be put in. They could be extended, Sophie. All these things are what Parliament can do. Parliament is there to, obviously, scrutinize government proposals. I

Think my point is it is not a one-way street. Just because we are seeking to have the parliament, it doesn't mean to say we're deaf to how facts change on the ground. And all the way through this, following the science, following the facts, you know, looking at outbreaks around the world has informed us. It'll inform us with the task force around international travel that's going to report to the prime minister in April. It'll inform us around the passporting task force, and it'll also inform the prime minister in April. And we will take it step by step.

But for my constituents who have been locked down since August, having a sense of plan, having a sense of stability, is probably the most important thing, so that they can get on with their lives, get their children back to school, but also understand, you know, what the government's next steps are.

SOPHIE RIDGE: You mentioned how the plans will inform things like foreign travel. What is the position on foreign travel? Is it likely that we'll be able to go on holiday this summer? And what are your own holiday plans?

BEN WALLACE: Well, my colleague the transport secretary said only recently that it's highly unlikely we'll be able to go on foreign holidays as such, this side of May or, indeed, in early May. But you know, we're going to wait for the task force to report to the prime minister in April. They're going to take a look at it.

You know, we can't be deaf and blind to what's going on outside the United Kingdom. If you look in Europe, the increases of infections. And we can't put at risk the huge amount of effort by the taxpayer, by the NHS, by our scientists in developing this vaccine. And if we were to be reckless in any way and import new variants that put at risk, then you know, what would people say about that?

This, you know, we we've got a good direction of travel. We're getting there. And I think we need to make sure we preserve that at all costs.

SOPHIE RIDGE: You mentioned, now, the rise in cases in Europe. There's also been a lot of criticism of the vaccine rollouts across the EU as well. And Ursula von der Leyen, with the backing of France and Germany, has again threatened to potentially block exports of AstraZeneca to countries such as the UK who've got a higher vaccination rate than many in Europe. Now, the foreign secretary has accused the EU of acting like less-democratic countries. Do you think that the EU is acting like a dictatorship?

BEN WALLACE: Well, I will take the president of the European Commission's words that she gave to the prime minister a few months ago, that Europe, the European Commission and Britain, we're not going to engage in breaking contracts. So all of us recognize the importance of international law and upholding contract law around the world. I mean, the European Union will know that the rest of the world is looking at the commission about how it conducts itself on this. And if contracts get broken and undertakings, you know, that is a very damaging thing to happen for a trading bloc that prides itself on the rule of law, prides itself on following, you know, contracts and being an open trading bloc. And I think, you know, the commission knows, deep down, the world is watching what happens.

And also, it would be counterproductive, because the one thing we know about vaccine production and manufacturers is it is collaborative. You know, the Oxford-- Oxford University and AstraZeneca invented, developed this, the intellectual property that led to the vaccine. How the vaccine is manufactured involves countries not just in Europe, not just in the United Kingdom, but even further afield in such places as India. And if we start to unpick that, if the Commission were to start to do that, I think they would undermine not only their own citizens' chances of having a proper vaccine program, but also many other countries' around the world, with a reputational damage for the EU that I think they would find very hard to change over the short term.

SOPHIE RIDGE: That's interesting that you talk about the interdependency of vaccine manufacturing. That's something that Pfizer has reportedly also flagged to Brussels and the EU, saying that actually, parts of the ingredients that they need are made in the UK. If the EU did decide to block exports, do you think you could see some kind of retaliation from countries like the UK?

BEN WALLACE: So first of all, the United Kingdom already has its own manufacturing capability in some areas. And because of the decisions the government took in, and Matt Hancock and the prime minister earlier on, we have invested in a range of types of vaccines that will give us more opportunities. We'll continue to explore growing those supplies, if need be, but you know, I think, let's remember, we have now vaccinated over half the adult population-- unprecedented levels for a country of our size, well above most countries or all countries in Europe. And we're on the right direction.

We're going to continue to vaccine. I, myself, got my first text the other day calling me to have my vaccination. And you know, day by day, the vaccines minister and Matt Hancock will explore all supply routes. And I think, you know, the commission knows deep down, the governments of the European Union know deep down that, you know, this would be counterproductive to start, effectively, down this route, if it is true what she's been saying. And I think it's [INAUDIBLE].

SOPHIE RIDGE: Well, we've heard her, [INAUDIBLE].

BEN WALLACE: Look, Sophie, I think they're under tremendous political pressure in the European Commission. I think it's really a matter for them of how they deal with it. But you know, the values they espouse, of the European Union, of upholding the rule of law, being a trading bloc, all of that means that you follow these contracts, that you honor them which you agreed. And I think, you know, it would damage the EU's reputation globally should they renege on these things.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, now-- congratulations, by the way, on getting your own vaccination text. We know, of course, we've had an absolutely stonking couple of days for the vaccine rollout. But things could get a bit more bumpy over the next month, partly because of this delay from India. Can you just explain what is the reason for that delay? The prime minister said that India hasn't blocked anything. We've been told technical reasons. But frankly, I mean, that is quite meaningless, the idea of just technical reasons. Why has that been delayed? And as a result of these issues in the supply chain, are we now looking at trying to manufacture more doses here in the UK?

BEN WALLACE: Well, first of all, as I said earlier, Sophie, we already have a manufacturing capability in the United Kingdom. We're always exploring where we could increase that manufacturing capability, whether at home or with other international partners, and we'll continue to do so.

I'm afraid I don't know the exact details of what's going on in the Indian factories and development, but you know, what we have seen-- and we saw it with, I think, AstraZeneca and Pfizer-- is that these technical issues are real. They do happen. And when you suddenly massively expand a vaccination program, what you get at the end of that is, you know, sometimes that takes time. You would have reported a few weeks ago the slowdown in supply, which I think upset the European Commission at that stage, when some of the factories in Europe had to reset and enlarge. I think that's perfectly to be expected. And that's why the prime minister appointed Nadhim Zahawi as a vaccine minister to make sure we did everything we could globally to iron out supply chains.

SOPHIE RIDGE: And talking, as well, just finally on the vaccine, we've seen a difficult week for AstraZeneca, European countries pausing the rollout, many of them restarting it. And, of course, this comes off the back of, for example, the French President describing it as quasi-effective. Do you think some of this criticism of the AstraZeneca vaccine is political, rather than being based on science?

BEN WALLACE: Well, I think what it shows-- and you know, as Defense Secretary, [INAUDIBLE] here to, hopefully, launch our defense reforms-- what it shows is that in the world we live in, in the global world we live in, information is a very, very important tool. And we have to make sure that as politicians and governments of country, we are responsible with how we use that information and that we are--

SOPHIE RIDGE: Has the French President been responsible?

BEN WALLACE: Well, I'll let the media be a judge of that. My view is that the European Medicals Agency has approved AstraZeneca to be safe. A number of countries that said they were going to pause it have now done a U-turn and are starting to roll it out. And I think it's really for the governments of each of these European countries to answer the questions of their own citizens about why or when they're going to get their vaccines.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, now, as you say, you are Defense Secretary. You're publishing the Defense Command Paper tomorrow. Now, there are reports the Army is going to be cut by 10,000 troops as part of that. Is that true?

BEN WALLACE: Well, I'm not going to reveal on the media before Parliament, I'm afraid, the details of numbers of our men and women of our armed forces. It's important that I deliver the Command Paper. Parliament establishes the armed forces, and that is my obligation to Parliament.

So I'm not going to get into the speculation. We had in November a story, I remember, at the BBC about cutting the Army to 65,000. I've seen lots of numbers used. I think the assurance I can give the viewers is that what I will be doing is making sure we have an armed forces that's the right size to meet the threat and the right size to meet the government's ambition of having a global Britain that can uphold values and support its allies.

SOPHIE RIDGE: And you are launching this new spy ship. What's the idea?

BEN WALLACE: Well, I think back in November, the prime minister enacted a multi-role surveillance vessel. I don't call it a spy ship. I mean, obviously, what's key here is to make sure that we protect our critical [INAUDIBLE] infrastructure. What we have seen is that our adversaries have spotted that some of our weaknesses are, obviously, different from what they were 10, 20 years ago. We are very, very dependent on things like cables and satellites in space, and if we don't invest in the capabilities to protect those, then we will be left deeply vulnerable. And there's lots of media reporting around some Russian programs that we have seen, about looking at that. And therefore, it's my duty as Defense Secretary to make sure we invest in capabilities to make sure the lights don't go out at home.

SOPHIE RIDGE: And you talking a lot, of course, about a sort of changing world and new threats. One of the biggest challenges, of course, is how to deal with China. Now, this week, your Integrated Defense Review called for positive trade and investment relationship with China. In light of China's actions in Hong Kong, towards the Uyghur Muslims, shouldn't we be a bit tougher than that?

BEN WALLACE: Well, I think we have we are certainly tougher than previous governments. We are putting in place new legislation to make sure--

SOPHIE RIDGE: That's not hard when you look at David Cameron and George Osborne.

BEN WALLACE: [INAUDIBLE] Sophie, look, what I would say is we are putting in place laws to make sure that we, the government, can protect our security and our businesses from-- necessarily from being bought up, potentially, by Chinese companies that would seek to take away that intellectual property. The Foreign Secretary, only a few weeks ago, set out a range of measures to look at companies that may trade within the region of China where the Uyghur are being systematically and clearly persecuted. And we have, over time, called out members of the Chinese government who have been involved in cybercrime and cyber espionage. And not only that, we've also raised it in the UN and asked for, you know, investigations and further work on calling out this behavior. So--

SOPHIE RIDGE: But "calling out," though-- sorry just to come in, because some people listening to you will say calling out, that's just not enough, is it? Calling somebody out, China is not going to care about that. You want to have a positive trade and investment relationship. This is a country that's holding workers in camps. There are reports of women being forcibly sterilized, children being taken away and left in orphanages. Is the position, effectively, that if you're wealthy enough a country, if you are an important enough trading partner, then we won't do anything else other than just say a few words that are calling you out?

BEN WALLACE: No, Sophie. Look, first of all, we live in the world we live in, not in the world we, necessarily, are at or wish to be. And on that route, to get there, what we need to make sure is that we use all the tools we have at our disposal. But you know, British companies up and down this country trade with China. Their customers go into shops and buy things from-- products that are manufactured in China. And yes, we want to do more to encourage British manufacturing and more to diversify that supply chain, because that is ultimately the best way to get stronger leverage on China to get their behavior to change-- which is to be, A, less dependent on them, but also use those levers.

And I think my point of view would be, if we didn't trade with China, we would actually have, in some areas, less leverage to try and influence China's behavior. You know, the international community, alongside the United States and others, and in the UN, know that if we want China's behavior to change-- we think it is appalling what's going on with the Uyghurs-- but you know, we cannot just overnight stop trading directly with China. What we can do is take steps to make sure that the trade we do is restricted, that the trade-- we have an arms embargo on China, for example-- and that we take steps.

We are wide-eyed about China's place in the world, but China's place in the world is significantly large. And you know, again, as I said, you know over the years, people have had a different relationship with China. We are effectively resetting that, making it very clear the parameters, and taking steps where we can.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, Ethiopia, a huge issue at the moment, a really devastating situation. Four months of war, 1/2 a million people lost their homes. What is the UK doing?

BEN WALLACE: Well, first of all, at the United Nations, we've called that out, led calling out of that. We've also-- the ambassador asked and called upon the forces there to de-escalate. And we are horrified by what we've seen.

I think we're going to investigate that further, and the ambassador on the ground has been very clear, we call upon all the parties to step away. And you know, it's just horrendous what's been going on. And that's why at the UN-- and obviously, we are chairing the Security Council, at the moment, of the United Nations-- making sure that the United Nations and the international community come along to make sure that this just doesn't get any worse and, in fact, we deal with those people that have done those things.

SOPHIE RIDGE: And then, one more very quick question while I have you. Reports today that refugees are going to be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK to try and encourage more legal routes. What's the idea?

BEN WALLACE: Well, the home secretary will, obviously, announce the details next week when the bill is launched in Parliament. And I don't think I would speculate on some of the press reports about the legislation before it is put forward or, indeed, whitepapers to come. But I think first and foremost, we recognize that the asylum seeker-- I mean, it is not working well, and we have to deal with that. We have to also deal with the people traffickers that bring people across the channel. They are wicked people doing some horrendous things. And you know, it is not at a place where we want it to be, and so we've got to work with it.

We also recognize, however, that, you know, conflict drives a lot of this migration, which is why, you know, as Defense Secretary, I have to make it very clear to people that defense is not only in the business, if it has to, of hard power-- such as, you know, fighting a war if that is what is required to defend this nation-- but also in the business of conflict prevention. And you talk about the issues around, for example, Ethiopia. You know, we are in Sudan. We're in Somalia over the years as the British armed forces, because security is often, first and foremost, what is most important to preventing those refugee flows in the first place.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, thank you so much for being on the program today. Ben Wallace there. Thank you.