John Healey: Ministers have a democratic duty to explain the role of British combat troops in Mali

3 Dec

John Healey is Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, and MP for Wentworth and Dearne.

This month more than 250 British troops will begin a three-year deployment with the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. This is described by the UN as its ‘most dangerous mission’, with 227 personnel killed since 2013.

With the growth of Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, the Sahel is now one of the most unstable regions of the world. The UK will be filling a ‘capability gap’ in the UN force by providing soldiers who are specialist in long-range reconnaissance. Combat and casualties can be expected.

Since 2018 the UK has provided RAF logistical support to the French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane, with three Chinook helicopters and non-combat ground crew, though the MoD stress the new UN deployment is separate from the French mission.

Despite committing British combat troops into a conflict zone, the Defence Secretary has felt no duty to report on this directly to Parliament. The deployment this month was confirmed in an MoD press release during the summer recess.

Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face. The public have a right to expect Ministers to be more open too.

As a UN P5 Security Council member, Britain has an overdue duty to support the 15,000-strong UN mission in Mali, which was first established in 2013, and which the UN Secretary General says plays “a fundamental political and security role”.

There is significant humanitarian interest in Mali, with the UN estimating 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and over a quarter of a million people internally displaced.

There is significant development interest in Mali, with 78 per cent of the population living in poverty, 39 per cent of primary age children not in school and the country ranking 184 out of 188 on the UN human development index.

Above all, there is significant security interest in Mali, with al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups active in the region which the Government say have a terrorist reach beyond Africa into Europe.

In these circumstances, the questions about British troops in Mali abound. What role will they play? How will they contribute to the UN mandate? What risks do they face? How does this deployment contribute to the UK’s new strategic approach to sub-Saharan Africa? What are the criteria for a successful mission and bringing Britain’s troops home again?

The practice of accountability to the public via Parliament is decaying under this Government but it should remain a basic principle that no Defence Secretary commits British troops into a conflict zone before a full statement in the Commons so that MPs can secure answers to concerns about the mission and the service personnel.

Henry Smith: The defence sector has a vital role to play in levelling up – but needs Treasury support

28 Nov

Henry Smith is the Member of Parliament for Crawley.

In Crawley, where the aerospace sector is a significant local employer, we have been hit hard by the impact of Covid-19. This will be an extremely challenging time for individuals and families in my constituency and we must look to replace those jobs quickly.

I believe that this recovery can, and should, be technology-led and that one of the Government departments with the biggest budgets – the Ministry of Defence – could be at the heart of it. With the Integrated Review due to report soon, it is important that the UK takes this opportunity to adapt to an environment where technology, science and data are at the centre of delivering our global ambitions.

I agree with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, that investing in cyber, space, electronic warfare, AI, robotics and autonomy is vital for our future prosperity and security. These kinds of technologies will be critical in building not only national resilience for the UK but a resilient digitally enabled economy.

However, in order to make the Integrated Review effective and the long-term platform on which to build the nation’s security, it must be accompanied by a multi-year spending settlement.

I appreciate that Rishi Sunak needs to focus on the present. But in an industry where contracts are for tens of years and companies make decisions on R&D investment with a long-term view, the absence of a multi-year settlement adds to uncertainty, causes delays in programme decisions, and makes the UK less attractive to large defence companies for investment.

British national security cannot be separated from the strength of our onshore defence and technology base, which increasingly that includes cyber and digital. The ability to rapidly respond to changing threats or shifts in international dynamics is critical. By developing our industry at home, we are able to make decisions to prioritise our values and protect our security, as the Government rightly did with the Huawei/5G decision.

As we have seen throughout this pandemic, our economic and social lives have been shifted online and the importance of being able to have trust in the systems we use, – that our data is secure, that a website is legitimate – can scarcely be overstated. Given the importance of the digital economy, digital trust must now be considered a foundation for national security; we should consider an intrinsic aspect of our Critical National Infrastructure.

Having world leading capabilities that are created and developed in Britain can also support our trade ambitions and export strength. Export sales can help spread the costs of design and production, potentially bringing down the cost of capabilities for the Armed Forces and saving taxpayers’ money. The reputation of the British military is such that when they can be cited as a reference user it adds significant weight to an export campaign.

In order to maximise the UK-wide benefit, the Government must back our industry by choosing to place a high weighting on the positive economic and employment impacts for Britain when making contract decisions, particularly when taxpayer money has been invested in the development of key technologies.

Brexit represents a chance to level the playing field for our defence industry, having previously been hampered by EU competition laws that were interpreted differently across the different states. The Ministry of Defence must be serious about using criteria to make contract decisions that take into account the impact on British jobs. With a large budget and significant annual capital spending, the MoD can be a vital tool in supporting the economic resilience of the nation as well as our security in the more traditional terms. This is something we have seen in countries across the world as they respond to Covid-19 including the US, France, Germany, and Australia.

Like in Crawley, colleagues from many parts of the nation, from Broughton, Brough, and Barrow, will also know benefits of big manufacturers supporting both employment in their area and a national supply chain. By giving the MoD a multi-year settlement, the Government will be recognising the value that defence spending brings to the national and – crucially – local economies.

We must be thinking about the long-term future of our manufacturing towns, and the Government needs to demonstrate their commitment by giving industry the certainty it needs to level up the economy across our United Kingdom.

Bob Seely: Lessons from the Cummings era about leadership, decentralisation, localism – and making more use of MPs

15 Nov

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

Dominic Cummings has gone, but his strengths – and weaknesses – have lessons for us, and his departure still leaves Britain’s government in need of reform.

First, in fairness to Cummings, we need creative thinkers in politics, and he was clearly is as allergic to waffle as he was to a decent dress sense. However, being a free thinker is not the same as being a leader. Every organisation needs genuinely creative thinkers like Cummings to challenge group-think and, as the cliché puts it, think outside the box.

You do not, however, put them in charge because, unless they are there to drive a single issue for a specific amount of time, chaos ensues. Iconocasts question and challenge – and sometimes trash things – but they rarely build.

Cummings’ ability to diagnosis a problem was impressive, but his ability to drive solutions was flawed.

Two Armed Forces comparisons here are useful.

Cummings saw through the chaff to a single core idea. Broadly speaking, in military theory this is called “understanding the centre of gravity”. It’s rare to see it convincingly reduced to a single idea, without the laziness of adding the ballast of supporting points. The Brexit referendum, the levelling up agenda, the need to use data better, all showed that Cummings had the ability to understand clearly a problem: revolutionaries often do.

But whilst Cummings had a rare clarity of thinking, the evidence suggests he wasn’t so good at implementing it. I wonder if that was difficulty in delegating, and a need to keep control – if so, this issue goes much wider than Cummings.

The trend towards centralisation is actively damaging Government. Add our growing culture of risk-aversion, as well as the human rights legal industry, and you have some understanding why centralised Government is slow and cumbersome and its reform is difficult.

Compare this situation with best practise decision-making in the Armed Forces – which is called “mission command”.

Mission command is the combining of centralised intent with decentralised command; it’s when generals give orders to achieve an objective, but the responsibility for delivering that intent is pushed as far down the command chain as possible.

It is the system which gives young men and woman significant responsibility very early in the military careers, and is perhaps the key reason why they stand out so much from their civilian peers. They have responsibly forced on them.

We need such a culture of decentralised responsibility in the civil service and in local government. In which central government sets a broad agenda, but the responsibility for delivering it is pushed down to the lowest possible level, with freedoms to experiment to provide the best way forward.

Revolutionaries want centralised states because they want to drive change, but this is rarely successful. In non-democracies, many centralised revolutions produced catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century. And in democracies, over-centralisation has inhibited reform and good government.

For example, Labour’s obsessions with a top-down, targets-driven culture resulted in NHS managers prioritising treatment based on targets, not need: people died as a result. Another example – Germany’s decentralised health and public health system has coped with Covid-19 much better than ours.

In Westminster, the recent sucking-away of political influence from MPs has caused friction and frustration. Disdain has been accompanied by mistakes: not a good combination. Downing Street now has a chance to reset relationship with MPs who feel marginalised over a variety of issues, including the disastrous housing algorithm and the potentially destructive planning changes. MPs need to be able to contribute to policy. Ministers need to have power and agency in their own right, not just be cyphers.

However, for successful reform to happen, we need a change of culture, not just a change of names. Second, ‘taking back control’ must now mean finding ways to decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster. Government, working with MPs must drive the intent, but decentralised command must give more power and flexibility for local leaders and local councils to drive local initiatives, the best of which we could all learn from.

Shaun Bailey: Let us remember the sacrifices made from across the Commonwealth, for our freedom

9 Nov

Shaun Bailey is a member of the London Assembly and the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.

Everything about Remembrance Sunday was a little bit different this year. Crowds were smaller. Events were socially distanced. The trials of the last few months hovered at the back of our minds.

But that doesn’t mean the day itself was any less meaningful. In fact, when the country fell silent and the bells started to toll, I believe there was an even greater depth of emotion. It was a chance to remind ourselves that the sacrifices we’re making — staying at home, protecting the NHS, not seeing friends and family — are large by themselves, but nothing compared to the sacrifices our grandparents and great-grandparents made. Nothing, in fact, compared to the sacrifices our soldiers make every day.

After all, what we’re going through now is not a new normal for our men and women in uniform: it’s the old normal. On any given year, they have to go months without seeing their families. They suspend their lives for a cause bigger than any one person. They tragically lose friends and colleagues. And despite everything, they pull together, look out for one another, and emerge victorious. They set an example for all of us as we deal with coronavirus and lockdown.

They also show us the kind of country we are. Britain today is multiethnic, multiracial, varied in every possible way. And that has always been represented in our army, which throughout history has been made up of people from different races, religions and backgrounds; from the UK and from the Commonwealth. What unites our soldiers is their belief in Britain — their selfless determination to defend our country and protect our freedoms.

My grandad is one of the soldiers I thought about yesterday. Born and raised in Jamaica, he went on to fight for Britain in the Second World War. He’s the reason I’m here today. His belief that Britain was a country worth fighting for, worth giving up your life for if necessary, helped to shape my views from a very young age.

He also inspired my mum to sign me up for the Army Cadets, a decision that changed my life. I went from being a difficult kid to being a disciplined kid. The Army Cadets taught me that expectations are important, that you should never worry about failing as long as you get back up and give it another shot. The Army Cadets continue to play a huge role in my life — and it’s all thanks to the example my grandad set.

Not that my grandad’s story is unique. It’s the story of countless Commonwealth soldiers. The Sikhs and Muslims who fought heroically for Britain in the First and Second World Wars. The Hindus who served in the Burma Campaign. The countless Africans and Caribbeans commemorated at the African and Caribbean War Memorial in Brixton. These are some of the many people I paid tribute to on Sunday.

And many of those same Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Africans, and Caribbeans made the bold decision to uproot their lives and move to our country — just like my family did. Without a doubt, we are better off as a result of their decisions, and not just economically. Commonwealth citizens enriched our culture and, as we’ve seen over the last few months, they’re still on the frontlines today, saving lives by battling coronavirus.

Look at the British Asian entrepreneurs helping to keep London’s high streets alive. Look at their influence on our culture — from curry houses to our language itself. Look at the massive contribution made to London’s hospitals by Africans and Caribbeans every day — including my mum, who works for the NHS. This is modern Britain. And it proves that the Commonwealth isn’t just an organisation we’re part of; the Commonwealth is who we are.

That’s something to be grateful for, and not just on Remembrance Sunday. The fact that we are a nation of all colours and religions, all races and backgrounds; a nation that can come together as one to defeat our enemies, whether they appear in jackboots or in the form of a virus.

It’s also a lesson in working together. We know that coronavirus has caused mental health issues for people across the country. We know that lockdown will be tough. But we also know we can get through it — if we get through it together.

So whatever you’re doing and wherever you are, I hope you found renewed meaning in the Remembrance events yesterday. In these difficult times, ‘lest we forget’ is a more powerful message than ever.

Benjamin Obese-Jecty: Ministers must ensure the Overseas Operations Bill properly supports service personnel

3 Nov

Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.

The Overseas Operations Bill is critical legislation; we must ensure it supports our personnel effectively

Ahead of the third reading of the Overseas Operations Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has published its report (‘Legislative Scrutiny: Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill‘) and this week will seek to table a number of amendments.

Though the Bill passed at second reading by 332 to 77, costing a number of Labour rebels their roles in the process, the presumption against prosecution for British soldiers serving on operations overseas has proved to be a topic that has raised concerns in quarters beyond those of solely the Labour hard-left. The Chair of the Committee, Harriet Harman, has stated that the Bill “will allow those in our armed forces who perpetrate serious crimes to escape justice”.

Having served as an Infantry Officer on our two most recent protracted military operations, in both Basra and Sangin, I have the utmost confidence in the values and standards instilled and upheld by our service personnel and the leadership and moral courage shown by Officers and NCOs in confronting potentially illegal or damaging decisions and orders; to suggest otherwise belies a thorough misunderstanding of the qualities of our service personnel.

Despite the lengthy investigations of potential British war crimes carried out by the Iraq Historic Investigations Team (IHAT) and investigations in Afghanistan under Operation Northmoor, only two British servicemen have been prosecuted. However, the number of service personnel impacted by legal claims runs into thousands.

IHAT investigated 3,400 allegations against British service personnel, and Operation Northmoor a further 675, leading to one prosecution in 2005 and none since (Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman’s prosecution falling outside this framework). Therefore to place thousands of individuals under suspicion, some of whom already suffer the daily challenge of having served on operations during the most costly period for British forces overseas since the Second World War, is precisely the nature of vexatious claims that the Bill is designed to prevent – despite Reverend Nicholas Mercer’s view that the Bill itself is ‘egregious’.

During this week’s third reading of the Bill, Labour are expected to table a number of amendments, several of which are expected to fundamentally change its nature. But there is an opportunity to refine its detail in order to both assuage concerns and better support service personnel.

The Government must do its utmost to uphold the manifesto pledge to end the vexatious claims against members of our Armed Forces. With the majority of those who oppose the Bill having never found themselves faced with the life-or-death decisions placed upon our troops, particularly during the decade of high-tempo operations that started with the Iraq War, it would be remiss of the Government to acquiesce to their demands and facilitate the continued ease with which allegations are made.

Harman is expected to table an amendment that would remove the presumption against prosecution for service personnel, but the accusation that the Bill permits torture and war crimes to take place is not only an insult to the discipline and professionalism of our Armed Forces, it is simply not borne out by statistics. With thousands of service personnel having been needlessly harangued, protecting them from the debilitating pressure of lengthy investigations, sometimes years after they have served, remains crucial.

The six-year time limit restricting the ability of individuals to bring civil claims against the Government or the Ministry of Defence in relation to operational overseas service acts, however, flies in the face of this protection.

It is hard to envisage where the implementation of Clause 11 stands to benefit current or former service personnel. Under the conditions of the Bill, I as a veteran would find myself with a one-year timeframe to bring a civil case against the MoD should I develop an illness in later life caused by my operational service in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how this is of benefit to the thousands of veterans potentially impacted by this change.

Given the Government’s commitment to upholding the Armed Forces Covenant, it should not be afraid of confronting those circumstances when the duty of care towards personnel should have been greater. We cannot expect troops to show moral courage during demanding operations and not expect that to be reciprocated. Removing the six-year absolute limit upon civil claims for service personnel would reinforce the commitment to how they are valued and reinforce confidence that there is a framework in place that facilitates their needs should circumstances require it.

There has also been significant criticism of the Bill with regards to the duty to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights. Clause 12 of the Bill inserts a new section into the Human Rights Act which provides that the Secretary of State “must keep under consideration” whether the UK should make a derogation under Article 15 (derogation in time of emergency). Under this the Government is permitted to derogate from the convention in a “temporary, limited and supervised manner” and can be invoked “only in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. Though it has invoked derogation from Article 15 before, it is yet to do so in relation to overseas operations.

The ambiguity around whether the MoD defines “war” as per Article 15 ECHR as the same as “significant overseas operation” within Clause 11 of the Bill is one of the issues upon which critics have suggested clarification. In addition, clarification as to whether the Bill applies to international and non-international armed conflict as well as peacekeeping operations, special operations, and counter-terrorism operations will be vital in establishing the framework within which our forces are operating, and would prevent unnecessary scrutiny at a time when clear and transparent decision-making will be critical in ensuring confidence in our military operations.

The Overseas Operations Bill will uphold the election manifesto pledge to protect our service personnel against vexatious claims and the growing judicialization of warfare as well as illustrating that the Office for Veterans Affairs is delivering in its mission to enhance the quality of life for those who have served.

Current service personnel and veterans alike who have had their lives turned upside down by allegations and fruitless investigations by opportunists and activists deserve the protection on operations that the Government seeks to implement. We owe those same soldiers the right to challenge the MoD should they suffer long-term mental or physical injuries as a result of actions on those operations.

Gerald Howarth: To ensure post-Brexit success, the Government must bolster Britain’s military posture

29 Oct

Sir Gerald Howarth was the MP for Aldershot from 1997-2017, and Minister for International Security Strategy 2010-2012.

As a former Minister for International Security Strategy, I warmly welcomed a review intended to place defence and security within a foreign policy strategic context.

Entirely correctly, the Government has made clear that it wants post-Brexit Britain to play a key role on the world stage. That vision alone calls for a strong military posture because, like it or not, military strength tends to command influence.

It is that strong posture, built over centuries, which has enabled the UK to deploy soft power to significant effect. Loan service officers, joint exercises, training overseas military personnel and the Royal College for Defence Studies all help promote British influence, but our ability to deploy soft power is founded on our hard power – the nuclear deterrent, state-of-the-art kit, and, above all, superbly professional armed forces personnel who have distinguished themselves in recent battles from the Falklands to Afghanistan.

Indeed, the successful Falklands campaign overnight transformed the world’s perception of the UK from a nation in terminal postwar decline to one which once again commanded international respect and propelled Margaret Thatcher onto the world stage.

Increasing global tensions also dictate that we need to increase our defence capabilities – and certainly not cut them. Since the 2010 review in which I was involved, and which was Treasury-driven as a consequence of the £160 billion budget deficit we inherited, much has happened. Take just two examples: in 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. It did so with complete impunity notwithstanding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by John Major, under which the US, UK and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders in return for that country destroying its nuclear arsenal.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently annexed uninhabited atolls, ownership of which is disputed with other nearby nations, and turned them into military bases. Again, it has done so with complete impunity, so it is hardly surprising China has taken advantage of Western paralysis to impose draconian new laws in Hong Kong. Britain has a locus: following our withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s, the UK drew up the Five Powers Defence Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia to safeguard the interests of the latter two.

Our failure to strengthen our defence posture poses the real risk of further instability worldwide.

Britain has an impressive defence industry which a Conservative government should be keen to nurture. For over a century the UK has been a world leader in aerospace and continue to hold that position today through companies like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce but sustained by a broad and innovative SME sector. We are the second largest exporter of defence equipment, after the United States, which not only earns us annual revenues of around £15 billion but enables us to offer tangible support to our friends and allies.

“Buying off the shelf” in reality means buying from the US which is our closest military ally but a formidable competitor in the defence market which has in the past blocked UK military exports containing US components through its application of ITAR (International Trading in Armaments Regulations) restrictions.

As Labour Lord Drayson’s 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy stated, the loss of sovereign capability leads inevitably to loss of operational sovereignty, to which add the loss of those defence exports. The UK is an equity partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, yet the US continues to deny us access to the computer source codes.

Fortunately, the UK has recognised the danger. The Tempest aircraft programme, which is ITAR-free, will deliver a sixth generation optionally manned capability, exploiting new disruptive technologies essential to tomorrow’s battle-winning capability.

It is led by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, supported by Thales UK, Leonardo and missile manufacturer MBDA together with around 600 UK SMEs and institutions. It will generate valuable, new UK technology and employ tens of thousands of skilled people, many in the North of England and Scotland. It is a statement of national intent which also makes economic sense.

The special challenge today is how to maintain effective conventional forces (we cannot expose ourselves to the risk of being outmanoeuvred as a result of having neglected those forces) whilst also developing tomorrow’s technology. You do not win wars using old equipment so investing in future technology like cyber and AI is essential. Funding for defence research has endured a persistent decline in the last two decades; that must change.

[Through no fault of its own, apart from our excellent Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, this Government lacks senior ministers with knowledge of, or experience in, the military. This review must not be rushed and expert advice should be sought and heeded.]

Inevitably, Covid-19 has thrown government financial planning into chaos. Nevertheless, it would be folly, and damaging to the PM’s critical post-Brexit vision for the United Kingdom, if he fails to acknowledge the long-term requirements of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Abandoning the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review will cause major problems for the MoD which manages an equipment programme stretching over several years. For example, the Tempest programme requires multi-year funding to maintain the confidence of our international partners that the UK remains committed to Tempest. It will also ensure the UK remains ahead of competitor programmes.

Conservatives hold that the first duty of government is defence of the Realm. Money has rightly been found to deal with the pandemic; it now needs to be found to ensure our national security and give credibility to that post-Brexit vision.

Judy Terry: Local authorities should be promoting the armed forces as a career choice

29 Oct

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Despite facing a potential unemployment crisis, with up to 4 million out of a job, especially affecting young people, I haven’t heard a single Minister highlighting the extensive career opportunities across the UK’s Armed Services, which are keen to recruit the best men and women to apprenticeships and officer training.

British Forces are amongst the best in the world, highly respected internationally for their leadership and effectiveness, both in combat and when delivering care and support to populations faced with environmental disasters. They work and train in partnership with other Western forces, including America and Europe, across the world, to protect us – and our interests.

Billions of pounds are invested annually in training and equipment, including new aircraft carriers.

Whatever their rank, Forces members are highly skilled decision-makers, building trust with colleagues, used to taking the initiative as well as responding to emergencies both at home and abroad. Within the last year, for example, the Army was deployed in flood zones around the UK, helping to save communities, built the Nightingale hospitals, and is now assisting at Covid-19 test centres.

The Prime Minister is even considering calling on the Army to assist Police in controlling breaches of pandemic protective measures, although Parliament hasn’t been consulted.

Unfortunately, this year’s annual Remembrance Day events to celebrate our military heroes will be curtailed for obvious reasons, but the minute’s silence will still serve as a reminder of how much we owe to them across the generations.

So, young people with good A levels and degrees could serve their country, saving lives, developing fantastic careers, travelling the world, employing their exceptional skills and knowledge, whilst earning a generous salary, from £15,000 as an apprentice to over £50,000.

According to the various websites (just google the Ministry of Defence), there are over 100 roles: from combat to engineer, medical services: nurses, doctors, dentists, radiographers, as well as IT, with cyber security and intelligence an important growth sector. Divers, dog handlers, police services, linguists, chefs, pilots, musicians, chaplains, deck officers, managers, air traffic controllers, logistics… – the world could literally be your oyster. These are lifetime skills, which can be transferred to other organisations, whether in the public sector or private industry.

Unlike private schools, there is a general reluctance in state schools to encourage careers in the Services, which inevitably impacts on diversity ambitions. Given the unemployment crisis, now is the time for local authorities to organise more structured career guidance, using films to illustrate the range of opportunities available, and zoom sessions with members of the Services, representing all ranks and specialisms.

The Government has also launched its campaign to recruit 20,000 new police officers, and has committed to expanding green energy and wind farms, but too few young people are aware of how to apply, or what qualifications are needed. There are some fantastic opportunities, with tailored training available; West Suffolk College is an example of how courses are being adapted for new recruits, as well as older people looking to retrain. Local authorities just need to rise to the challenge and communicate.

Bernard Jenkin: A herd immunity policy would mean hundreds of thousands dead. If that’s what’s meant by a Swedish option, forget it.

28 Sep

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee, and MP for Harwich and North Essex.

Some suggest that latest renewal of some restrictions to reverse the resurgence of Covid19 is over-reaction or shows the Government to be preoccupied with the wrong risks. And insist that Sweden is the example that we should now follow.

This denies some basic facts of viral spread. If R-number remains above one, then matters will continue to get worse. The timescale may be hard to predict, but eventually hospital beds would fill up and far more people would die or be permanently damaged by the illness. If R is brought below one, life can return to nearer normal again.

People who invoke ‘herd immunity’ must be honest about what they want, and prepared to defend the likely outcomes of this policy.

The Office for National Statistics estimate is that fewer than eight per cent of people in the United Kingdom have coronavirus antibodies. Given the official death toll of around 40,000 people so far, this is in line with what we would expect from a disease with a mortality rate of slightly under one in every hundred.

This means that, in order to reach general population immunity without a vaccine, at least a further half of the population would have to contract Covid-19 – approximately 30 million people. Given that tens of thousands have died so far, it is not an exaggeration to say that infecting this many would be likely to result in hundreds of thousands of further deaths.

As millions fell ill, they would require hospitalisation, overwhelming the hospitals – even the Nightingale hospitals. While advances in treatment and medicines can reduce the lethality of this disease and the length of a hospital stay, they cannot prevent a patient needing a hospital bed in the first place.

As we ran out of bed space, many would be unable to access basic care. We know that this is likely, not because of any predictions, but because it very nearly happened in the spring.

During the two weeks from the 25th of March, the proportion of English ICU beds occupied by Covid-19 patients trebled – from 20 per cent to almost 60 per cent. A reminder: this test to hospital capacity was caused by fewer than one in ten people in the UK contracting Covid-19, not half the population.

These are verified, confirmed facts about the spread of the disease in the UK. To claim that these facts are incorrect would require an explanation of why the NHS recorded tens of thousands of deaths and hospitalisations from Covid-19, or of why the ONS has not seen tens of millions of people with coronavirus antibodies.

In the absence of a credible explanation for this, we are left with the simple fact that more than 90 per cent of the UK has yet to be exposed to a disease far more virulent than seasonal ‘flu.

Yes, Sweden appears to have avoided the wave of deaths of countries such as the UK and France, while also managing to avoid the draconian spring lockdowns and, so far, the rising second wave of the oncoming winter. So why can’t we mirror its success?

The populations of the United Kingdom and Sweden differ significantly. Moreover, the absence of a national lockdown in Sweden does not mean that the government of Sweden did nothing at all.

First, the population of Sweden is healthier than in the UK. About 20 per cent of Swedes is obese: the UK’s figure is 27 per cent. The average Briton smokes more than 100 more cigarettes per year than the average Swede. This means that, for the average Swede, Covid-19 is a less deadly disease.

Second, Swedish people are more dispersed than in the UK. Sweden has 25 people per square kilometre: the UK has 275. In the UK where the most common household type is a family home with children, but in Sweden more than 50 per cent of people live alone.

So the Coronavirus is far less likely to spread between people in Sweden, because they are less likely to live with someone they could infect. This lower rate of spread means that it is easier for testing, tracking and tracing to suppress the virus. When people already live alone, and far away from other people, they are less likely to have spread the disease to others, lowering the burden on a national track and trace system.

Finally, Sweden may not have imposed a national lockdown, but people there are following social distancing guidelines. According to data seen by the BBC, the average Swede has fewer than one third of the social contacts they had before the pandemic, and surveys from August suggest that almost 90 per cent of people in Sweden are continuing to follow the government’s advice on distancing from other people.

Studies also suggest that far from everyone in Sweden having been infected with Coronavirus (‘herd immunity’), rates of cumulative infection range from six per cent to 30 per cent – but all estimates still leave millions of people still vulnerable to the disease.

Taking all these facts into account, what has happened in Sweden is not a quick rush to mass exposure, followed by population immunity. As before, there is very little evidence that Sweden has seen levels of Coronavirus exposure to put them on the brink of reaching herd immunity. Proponents of this theory require a serious account of how multiple studies have missed millions of infections and recoveries.

Indeed, were Sweden to have achieved herd immunity, the second spikes being seen in Spain and other European countries should not be taking place. This is because, extrapolating backwards from the number of Coronavirus deaths in these countries, they would have already reached a similar level of infection as Sweden.

The more plausible explanation is that the government of Sweden has used social distancing, extensive testing and an effective track and trace system to systematically monitor the pandemic.

This path, in principle, is available to the United Kingdom, but it requires a far more testing and contact tracing than we currently have – which is why military planners and commanders should be brought in to help scale up this part of the response. The current level of social mixing and trace-based isolation is allowing thousands of new cases per day, and this number is growing. Until a vaccine is developed, massively increased test, track and trace is the only way forward. More restrictions are a poor substitute.

To be clear: mass exposure is indeed one way out of the crisis. But those advocating it must be utterly clear that this extraordinary human cost is something that they are willing to have others pay.