This year has been so hard for so many. In some ways the first lockdown still feels very recent. On 17 April I wrote a blog, ‘Turning our priorities upside down’, reflecting on what was happening then. You can find the blog here; https://conscienceonline.org.uk/blog/2020/04/17/turning-our-priorities-upside-down/. At the time of writing 14,576 people had died from Covid-19 in hospital in the UK.
I would have been horrified, and found it impossible to believe, if someone had told me then that eight months later the total number of deaths from Covid-19, in hospital and in the community in the UK, would have soared to 68,307. 68,307 unique individuals with stories, hopes, fears, and plans. 68,307 people we have lost. Relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours.
68,307 is the number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus. However, the number of excess deaths in the UK (the difference between the total number of deaths registered and the average over the previous five years for the same weeks) since the start of the pandemic has now passed 81,000.
Back in April I would have been frightened to learn that a variant of the virus, 70% more infectious than the original very infectious virus, would be identified in the UK. A variant that, totally understandably, led over 40 countries earlier this week to ban arrivals from the UK.
I would have been shocked to learn that on 18 November, just over a month ago, the UK government felt it was a priority, felt it was appropriate, to announce a £16.5 billion rise in defence spending over the next four years. £16.5 billion. As a comparison, earlier in the same week, the government announced £12 billion to tackle climate change. In their statement that week the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament said that the £12 billion ‘paled in comparison to the investments being made by other European countries’.
Around the time of my April blog the armed forces had been involved in helping to build the Nightingale hospitals. Since then the military have been involved in helping deliver mobile testing for the virus, processing up to 7,000 coronavirus tests a day at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, supporting the roll-out of the vaccine (‘defence has currently got five planners in the Vaccine Task Force planning team within the Department of Health and Social Care’), supporting local authorities and NHS regions, helping to distribute and deliver personal protective equipment, and supporting NHS ambulance services.
Soldiers from The Grenadier Guards provide a mobile COVID-19 testing facility at Dulwich
A very big part of me is delighted that military resources and talent, designed for and normally devoted to war planning, are being diverted into life-enhancing, life-saving work in a hitherto unimaginable way; a story of swords into ploughshares. It shows such potential, it shows what could be possible e.g. in the conversion of military industries / jobs into peaceful, socially useful ones. I imagine that the individuals involved, whether receiving a test from a soldier or being driven in an ambulance by a member of the armed forces, would simply feel positive that their needs were being catered for, whoever was meeting them. And that local authorities and health boards who requested the help of the military would be sincerely grateful for the support given in an impossibly difficult time. And that individual military personnel, despite the pressures of the situation, are likely to feel positive that they are able to make a very important contribution at a very difficult time.
And yet another part of me is anxious, about the merging of military and civilian worlds. I worry that there is a risk that normalising the sight of the military supporting the beloved institution of the NHS, and supporting people when they are in need, could be used to sugar-coat the reputation and core purpose of the military, just as military recruitment advertisements concentrate on adventure, the development of skills, becoming part of a team. They don’t say you will be learning to kill your fellow human beings.
I think it’s possible for both to be true. The involvement of the military has shown that resources and skills can be quickly and successfully diverted, for everyone’s benefit. The pandemic has showed us the potential for re-defining the purpose of the military, and redefining what the threats are that the military is defending us from. Yet in so far as the military’s support is a temporary activity, rather than a permanent change of direction, it carries a potential danger – the danger of normalising and sanitising the military, giving it a positive and acceptable veneer.
If the NHS, public health services and local authorities had been properly funded they probably would not be be needing the assistance of the military. In that light the announcement of all those extra billions for the military in November feels part of a deliberate programme of political priorities as well as being wrong and inappropriate.
Covid: How The Military’s Been Fighting Coronavirus https://www.forces.net/news/coronavirus-how-military-helping
Covid-19: UK sees over 80,000 excess deaths during pandemic – BBC News
Boris Johnson agrees £16bn rise in defence spending https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/nov/18/boris-johnson-agrees-16bn-rise-in-defence-spending
CND responds to £16.5bn defence spending announcement https://cnduk.org/cnd-responds-to-16-5bn-defence-spending-announcement/