James Sunderland writes for ConservativeHome
Boris Johnson’s stark admission in the Commons yesterday that “we have reached a perilous turning point”, and the imposition of tighter measures from Thursday are a veritable game-changer in the Government’s strategy against Covid-19.
With the national ‘R’ rate hovering above 1.3, and the prospect of an exponential rise in infections over the next month, decisive action is needed to halt the spread of the virus and restore public confidence.
Whilst opinions do vary about the exact nature of intervention, the Prime Minister was happy to reaffirm his ability ‘to draw on military support where required to free up the police’. But of course, the full utility of HM Forces is much broader, and other options remain available to him.
Back in March 2020, with our backs against the wall against a new and hidden enemy, the deployment of our regular and reserve forces from the Navy, Army and RAF under Operation Rescript was a masterstroke of political leadership. By quickly mobilising without fuss or fanfare to build our flagship Nightingale Hospitals, set up mobile testing centres, drive ambulances and provide vital military advice to local resilience forums across the UK, they again proved their versatility by delivering exactly what they were asked to do.
Undeterred by the complexity of an unfamiliar operating environment, but emboldened by their vast experience of providing military assistance to the Civil Authority (MACA), they were able to confront this new challenge with fresh eyes and strip every problem back to first principles.
Blessed by brilliant leadership, our brave men and women did what they always do by rolling up their sleeves, and getting stuck in. Indeed, the deployment of senior officers from 101 Logistic Brigade to the NHS also paved the way for a complete review of its supply chain, resulting in PPE readily flowing to hospitals, medical centres and care homes. And by saving lives, it allowed the Government to regain the initiative.
In military parlance, the rising spike in Covid-19 cases under this second wave equates to what is commonly known as a ‘Question 4’ moment. With our politicians, local resilience forums, health and key workers stopping at nothing to suppress the virus throughout the summer and getting it under control, our sailors, soldiers and airmen have rightly returned to barracks.
But as they plan and train for whatever comes next, something has changed against the original mission. Now that a resurgent Covid-19 is back with a vengeance, the parameters of the Government’s ongoing combat estimate have shifted, and new measures are needed to keep the UK safe and secure. Given that we are at an inflexion point as we race towards another British winter, those sitting at Number Ten may wish to be reminded that our armed forces are ready, willing and able to redeploy at unlimited liability.
Whilst this might be seen by some as indicative of policy failure, the exact opposite is true. The Prime Minister has consistently proven that he is not afraid to take bold decisions, and this is just another weapon in his armoury that he can use as part of a wider strategy, when the time is right.
The armed forces have a proud history of providing support to the civil community and will not hesitate to refine their plans for Operation Rescript, once directed. Whilst Whitehall has often been resistant to the notion of military intervention on home soil, their agility and resilience are proven, and the ends always supersede the ways and means.
Whether contingency planning for the millennium bug, providing flood relief, taking control of the foot and mouth crisis, training relief drivers for fire, ambulance or fuel strikes, underpinning the Olympics, providing bomb disposal support, fighting moorland fires or even plugging holes in damns, their ability to lead, manage and solve problems are second to none.
As for the imperative at hand, there are four key areas in which the armed orces could best be brought to bear.
Firstly, the redeployment of military liaison officers to local resilience forums will provide essential advice and support as the key link between civil and military communities. They will be able to assist with local lockdown plans, command and control and the allocation of resources. Significantly, whilst centralised policy guidance from London is necessary, a devolved approach will also bring further dividends by managing local behaviours, limiting wider transmission and providing discrete regional solutions.
Secondly, a military HQ such as 101 Logistic Brigade could again be deployed at scale, but this time to support the ‘track and trace’ and mass testing imperatives. Given past success with PPE and the persuasive tie-up with Lord Deighton, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a coordinated mechanism could be established alongside the NHS, resilience forums, local Clinical Care Groups (CCGs) and the many private providers involved to accelerate the wider impact needed.
Crucially, it may also be prudent for senior military officers from HQ Standing Joint Commander (SJC) UK in Aldershot or the Ministry of Defence to be more directly involved in core decision-making within Whitehall. Given the UK’s continuing dependence on scientific and medical advice, it may just be that a combination of good old-fashioned political and military judgement could be persuasive as part of the solution.
Thirdly, the Armed Forces could be redeployed to provide mobile testing units or MTUs. Whilst most of the vehicles and equipment procured during the early stages of Operation Rescript have now been handed back, it would be relatively simple to retrieve them and provide a surge testing capacity in areas with the greatest R rate, casualty spikes or public demand.
Up to three battalions, plus a host of specialist medical, logistic, engineering and administrative units are believed to remain at varying readiness in support of SJC (UK) and these will provide a more agile and responsive support package to local authorities, notably in the provision of additional testing. Lastly, it may be that the Defence Medical Services could assist with laboratory capacity or help to ease the backlog by improving the flow.
As political observers will concur, deploying the armed forces in support of the civil community on home soil is rarely ‘an act of war’, but the effects are compelling. Given the national imperative to combat a pervasive virus, it remains a fact that the Navy, Army and RAF will only ever be able to play a limited and discrete role in support of the Government, for the simple reason that the civil authority will usually retain primacy.
Yet despite the limitations of what can be achieved in the face of conflicting defence priorities and resource constraints, the armed forces will always provide a visual reference point, a welcome physical presence and reassurance for communities when people need it the most.
And to counter the daft suggestion that redeployment under Operation Rescript might be viewed as a last resort, this will just be another bold move from a Government which has already provided unprecedented support to the British people. In fact, the narrative is persuasive here, as the increasing R rate has occurred despite the strict policy measures in place, and the Prime Minister is ‘damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t’, whichever way he turns.
Beyond the scope of the pandemic, it has been suggested that the redeployment of troops could be a useful reminder of the wider utility of military capability as we approach the Integrated Review – not that the British people should need to be convinced – or even perhaps that any ongoing success on Operation Rescript might in some way undermine it. However, in the face of the immediate crisis alone, the continued use of HM Forces in battling Covid-19 is ultimately a question of pragmatism and timing – and that time is now.