The Climate change emergency and Coronavirus (Covid 19) epidemic. So, what do they both have in common? The answer is a call in some quarters for the country to be placed on a war footing to combat the threat. So, in this short piece, we present some quick thoughts on the nature of what might constitute a ‘war footing’, which might prompt some further discussion.
Internationally, Iran and South Korea have declared such positions, so, what exactly does this mean; and should we in the United Kingdom government follow suit, declare a state of emergency and put ourselves on such a war footing?
Obviously, talk of a war footing conjures up images of WWII in particular, and perhaps thoughts of a ‘Blitiz Spirit’; but what exactly does this mean?
Are we at war, and who with? Obviously we want to ‘combat’ Coronavirus, and we can, sadly loose lives in the fight, but is it appropriate, justifiable or demand that we place Britain on a war footing to fight it; are we better treating it as an illness and epidemic; or is there a balance approach can usefully take lessons and frameworks from a ‘war footing’ and apply them to the current situation?
If we take the term to mean the necessity for an integrated, co-ordinated, unified and whole nation strategic, tactical and operational framework and response, where we ‘marshal and mobilise’ individual, community and national resources and assets to ‘fight’ Coronavirus, then yes, perhaps there is valid call to arms to be had.
George Osborne, who has called for such a war footing, has imply mass public fear; and recent stockpiling stories may imply some panic; but in fighting a disease around a core public message of keep calm and carry on, would such a ‘war footing’ approach only cause further panic and disruption? Afterall, do we place the country on a war footing every winter to fight flue?
The image of a prime minister and cabinet hungered down in a war room may do little to inspire public morale or confidence. And could Britain realistically be placed on lockdown, like Italy, with towns and cities guarded by military personnel and with inhabitants unable to leave and enter localities. Whilst isolation is important to slow and contain the potential threat, would wholesale lockdown really be the best route; and would be appropriate to or fit the British context.
There is a valid issue of the requirement for a unified, co-ordinated and centralised command, control, communications and intelligence framework to be in place; with decisive decisions being made; but those decisions should be evidence and intelligence led; and seen from a public health response perspective, rather than a political, social and military perspective.
What would the political, economic and social impact be of placing the country on a ‘war footing’ be? It is entirely possible that mass lockdowns could have enormous, but unintended, consequences. If you close the schools, does that mean that a nurse or doctor is stood down because they can not secure childcare? Timing is also important, as is the potential duration of this situation. Already in China, the ground zero, the situation seems to be improving; however it may well be that a valid approach is to lock down, take the economic hit and then be able to recover.
When The Prime Minister appears flanked by Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, where does the leadership trust and confidence come from? What translates government ‘propaganda’ to trusted, medical, scientific and evidence led advice?
If we are to be placed on a ‘war footing’ especially from a national crisis management preparedness and reliance perspective, then the focus must surely be on ensuring that public service infrastructures are as strong as possible, so that in such times of national crisis they can be effectively and successfully marshalled and mobilised. From the NHS to police, fire, paramedic and other front line emergency response and support services and personnel, not only must the financial support be in place, but there must be the sustained and long-term political will to make and execute the bold decisions required to ensure that such support is provided.
One of the most significant aspect of WWII was the way that it served as a catalyst for long-term, radical, and deep social, political and economic change. If we are to place the UK on a ‘war footing’ then one would hope that it is from a national resilience, crisis and emergency management preparedness, response and management perspective, allowing Britain to swiftly, effectively and successfully meet such future public health challenges.