Isolation and Community (part 2)

In the first part of this blog post, we looked at how a Wessex regional government might have helped the response to the COVID19 pandemic so far. In this concluding part, we will examine options for the future.

While much that is now in train must take its course, our eye is on the long term.  First and foremost, we need an ethical transformation.  An international demand is circulating for a new approach based on five Principles for a Just Recovery:

  1. Put people’s health first, no exceptions.
  2. Provide economic relief directly to the people.
  3. Help workers and communities, not corporate executives.
  4. Create resilience for future crises.
  5. Build solidarity and community across borders – do not empower authoritarians.

Lack of capacity costs lives; even the Prime Minister now confesses that “there really is such a thing as society”.  How can the lack of capacity be plugged in future?  With the global economy heading into recession and an ever-larger amount of public money paid out as interest on the national debt, properly funded health and social care systems will not come easily – at least until the tax havens are suppressed.  Capacity will need to come from flexibility, from assets capable of multiple use and with a comprehensive understanding of priorities.  That suggests that pandemics will need to be tackled not simply as a care issue but as a civil defence issue, right across government.  Preparedness costs money, today, and that money comes in most countries from the health budget, in the face of numerous competing demands. When the potential benefits of preparedness are an indefinable distance out in the future, it will be the first thing to be cut.  So, what if defence of the realm also included the ability to respond flexibly to whatever fate throws at us?  Who would be in charge of that?

Italy has its Carabinieri, France its Gendarmerie and the US its National Guard, all available to support the standard police or military response. The nearest thing the UK has is the Army Reserve, which evolved out of the old county militias.  However, as the recent change of name from the Territorial Army shows, this is now seen as supplementary to the regular Army.  Its old civil defence function has been absorbed into the needs of the perpetual warfare state, with deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq as likely as anything useful at home.  A Wessex Regiment formed part of the TA between 1971 and 1995.  Time to fill that gap?

There is a sometimes well-founded fear on the Left of the military mindset but the skills needed to get some serious long-term planning are as much military as civilian.  This is not just, or even mainly, about keeping order.  The response is about the precise use of logistics far more than it is about the precise use of force.  There is a long-established doctrine of ‘MACA’ – military aid to the civil authorities – that covers the scope of what it is reasonable to request.  In essence, aid must be a last resort when civilian resources are overwhelmed.  Operation Rescript is the current plan of involvement in COVID-19; previous involvement has included responses to flooding, terrorism and wildfires.  Science suggests help with natural disasters may be needed more frequently in future.  The questions remain whether regular or reserve forces are best placed to respond to civil contingencies, and in what numbers.

We have seen how the Scottish and Welsh governments have been able to respond flexibly to health and some economic aspects of the pandemic crisis.  The whole UK has looked to Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for authentic leadership, while the Welsh Assembly has closed down campsites and caravan parks, thus demonstrating the benefits of strong devolution.  Wessex, in contrast, is locked-in to the shambolic reaction from Westminster.  At local level, councils do what they can, through their own emergency management units, social services, and liaison with the police and the voluntary sector.  What is lacking is any visible regional co-ordination.  During the world wars, regional commissioners were appointed, empowered to take control if London fell.  The lesson of civil defence is that regional-scale operation works, allowing national rules to be applied by marshalling available local resources.  We could do with that sort of structure today, an elected Wessex government to direct with accountability, backed up by a Wessex militia or similar, resourced to think and act clearly in harnessing state, commercial and voluntary efforts, perhaps including a Community Volunteer Force to help with unglamorous but vital tasks such as litter-picking.  A regional government running the health service could be expected to have maintained constant contact with local suppliers of hospital equipment, knowledge saving vital time.  The community could have been mobilised much earlier, instead of playing catch-up.  Broadband capacity would long ago have been ramped up to sustain home working without interruption.  Political failure at Westminster must be exposed but lessons of all kinds must be learnt.  COVID-19 will not be the last emergency we face: we forget that at our peril.