Often, when politicians lose control of events, or need something serious done, they call in the army. At times of crisis, the British army is the go-to for disaster and security relief operations in the UK.
When the north of England was widely flooded in 2019, it was the Light Dragoons and 2nd battalion Royal Anglian regiment which rescued people from homes and shored up flood defences. In 2012, the army drafted in over 18,000 soldiers to support a shortfall in security guards charged with protecting the Olympic games. Through the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, the army was again on hand to assist with the disposal of infected livestock. Time and time again, the army has rolled up its sleeves and got on with the job, taking on massive challenges with impressive efficiency. Which begs the question: why can’t other public services do the same? If other parts of the public sector had the army’s efficiency, taxpayers would certainly get more for their money.
The army is useful in crises for several reasons. Firstly, it provides the state with a large pool of auxiliary manpower that can be deployed at short notice. Secondly, beyond warfighting, the army has a range of key skills that can be invaluable in an emergency. Logistics is one. The British army also has a well-earned reputation for building essential infrastructure rapidly, immortalised somewhat awkwardly in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
That large pool of manpower is available because the army often has a number of soldiers not committed to operations, but instead held at various levels of readiness in barracks around the UK. This means large numbers of trained soldiers can be deployed without imperilling other operations. In peacetime, if most government services are kept taut, the army provides a stretch of rubber to meet unexpected challenges. This is why 20,000 members of the military have been available to assist at coronavirus testing stations, helping build NHS Nightingale hospitals, assisting on hospital wards, delivering oxygen supplies and working as paramedics.
The second thing the military offers is expertise. The strain on the NHS caused by coronavirus has placed a massive burden on its supply chain which has, in some cases, struggled to cope. No where was this more evident than in the difficulty of securing enough personal protective equipment, and the ensuing drama over a Turkish-supplied batch. The Royal Logistics Corps (RLC), however, has been able to use experience gained in conflict zones overseas to step in and ensure a supply flow when other services have been unable to cope. Central and local government departments should note the degree to which expertise in critical areas can improve performance and efficiency. Too often, we hear tales of poor decisions made because government officials overreach and try to address issues far outside of their areas of expertise. This leads to needless spending, strained services and, ultimately, taxpayers paying more.
However, there is a third, more significant factor. That is the can-do attitude and determination to overcome problems that are a core component of the armed forces. Problem-solving is a key part of military training and soldiers are expected to be able to overcome any hurdles that may cross their path. This can mean making the most of whatever resources are available, cracking on and solving the problem. Unlike the wider government response, the army wasted no time in turning to the private sector to sort out the NHS’ supply issues. If the rest of the public sector had embraced this can-do attitude sooner, then the government’s coronavirus crisis response may well have been more successful. We have outlined the inadequacy of Public Health England’s response recently, but their stubborn resistance to increasing its testing capacity via greater private sector cooperation has stood out as a failure. Now, after massive public and political pressure and a complete change of attitude, UK testing capacity has soared.
The whole of the public sector needs to embrace the lessons learned with difficulty through this crisis. It ought to look towards the army for inspiration, and try to learn from its capacity-building, expertise and can-do spirit. Calling in the army is not always the answer. But learning from their example could be a good place to start. Taxpayers would certainly salute public service providers who tried.