NATO is stepping up efforts to help allies to help each other tackle coronavirus and to stop the pandemic from becoming a security crisis, the head of the alliance has said.
Jens Stoltenberg told Sky News it is also possible NATO will assist countries outside the 30-strong bloc but for now the focus is on the “enormous” task of supporting member states.
His comments came as a former British defence minister said the alliance needed to “wake up” and become more involved in dealing with the fallout from COVID-19.
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Commons defence select committee, said adversaries such as China and Russia would otherwise take advantage of any vacuum.
NATO defence ministers are due to hold a virtual meeting on Wednesday to discuss coronavirus, the response, and what lessons can be learned, including how countries must become less reliant on imports for key items such as medical supplies, Mr Stoltenberg said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Speaking afterwards, he denied the alliance had been slow to respond, ceding ground to Moscow and Beijing. They were both quick to send assistance to stricken European countries, including Italy and the UK.
“NATO started early to respond but what we did in the beginning is to implement preventative measures, protecting our missions and operations,” the secretary general said.
He was referring to the alliance’s security tasks such as the deployment of thousands of troops, including British forces, along its eastern flank in the Baltic states and Poland to deter Russian aggression.
“It is important to remember that NATO’s core task is to make sure this health crisis doesn’t become a security crisis,” he said.
Now the alliance is using its capabilities – including military aircraft suitable for transporting medical supplies – as well as its organisational structures to assist in the COVID-19 response, he said.
This includes helping to facilitate the delivery of two planeloads of personal protective equipment from Turkey to the UK over the long Easter weekend.
A coordination centre set up to respond to civil emergencies is coordinating requests for assistance from allies and partners. It has helped to channel medical supplies to North Macedonia and Montenegro, also from Turkey, while Luxembourg gifted material to make protective equipment for health professionals in Spain, according to data provided by NATO.
Norway has donated a field hospital to North Macedonia – the alliance’s newest member, while the Czech Republic channelled medical items to Spain and Italy.
The United States has also said its large contingent of military personnel based in Europe can offer support to allies, Mr Stoltenberg said.
The secretary general, a former Norwegian prime minister, was asked whether he was worried about the actions of Russia and China, sending aid to European nations – a move seen by some officials as more geopolitical gesture than genuine generosity.
He said: “Firstly, we all have to do whatever we can to save lives and that is exactly what NATO is doing when we provide on a daily basis different kind of help for NATO allies.
“Second it is for each and every ally to decide what different kind of help they need and they are ready to receive.
“Thirdly this is not a competition between countries. This is about saving lives and I welcome the fact that NATO allies are helping each other in many different ways.”
Mr Stoltenberg brushed off any suggestion that NATO – with individual member states consumed by the crisis – was irrelevant when it came to dealing with coronavirus.
“You are right that this crisis is special because normally when we have natural disaster it is one or two allies directly affected and all the others can come to provide to the one ally affected,” he said.
“Now all allies are affected and of course allies are concerned about their own national ability to protect their own national populations that is a natural thing for all governments to think.
“At the same time we are seeing that not all allies are affected in the same way at the same time. Not all allies reach the peak of this crisis at the same time and we have been able to identify surplus stocks, spare capacities and mobilising that to provide help. It is over time significant what allies do for each other.”
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This assistance could expand beyond NATO’s borders, where Russia and China are already active.
“It is also possible to foresee that at some stage we will also provide help to countries outside the NATO alliance,” the secretary general said.
“I will be a bit careful about speculating too much now because the task of providing sufficient help to NATO allies is so enormous and that is the main focus of both me, the NATO alliance and also the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.”
Senior Conservative Party MP Mr Ellwood said he thought that NATO’s actions to-date in response to the unprecedented health emergency had been disappointing.
“NATO needs to wake up,” he said in an interview.
“We need to have a collective attitude towards international security otherwise there are many states and non-states that will take full advantage of the vacuum that we are creating.”