Dr Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant: Its Impact on Civil-Military Relations in Britain She is a member of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservative Association.
Anyone who was rejoicing that the fall of the Red Wall last December would mean another decade in office for the Conservatives should remember the political price paid by a previous failure to deliver protective equipment to those on the front line.
In 2010, after seven long years, Operation Telic in Iraq had almost wound down, but had yet officially to draw to a close, while Operation Herrick in Afghanistan continued. There, the numbers of British troops on the ground was reaching its peak of 10,000. The majority of British military fatalities in Helmand province would occur in 2009 and 2010.
The media captured the repatriation of the fallen, whose final melancholy journey was made through Wootton Bassett, a corner of Middle England in Wiltshire. Townsfolk would line the streets to pay their respects to the Service personnel killed in action.
The simple ritual came to represent Britain’s acknowledgement of military sacrifice in the line of duty, with the people of the market town standing proxy for the nation. Images of Union-flag-draped coffins and grieving families became familiar to us.
The loss of life seemed all the worse when the absence of proper protective kit was considered to have contributed to it.
Corporal Sarah Bryant and three comrades were killed when their ‘Snatch’ Land Rover hit a roadside bomb in Lashkar Gar in June 2008. They were among almost 40 Service personnel who many consider died unnecessarily in the vehicles which came to be known as ‘coffins on wheels’.
A year later, Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, the commanding officer of 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, became the most senior officer to be killed since the Falklands when his comparatively lightly-armoured Viking hit a roadside bomb. Trooper Joshua Hammond of the Royal Tank Regiment also died. He was 18.
They were among the 220 British Service personnel killed in Helmand in 2009-10, in a mission that was beset by a perceived lack of helicopters.
As soldiers on the frontline in Afghanistan came under attack from the Taliban, back in Britain the Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq began in November 2009. Along with the controversy surrounding the legality and legitimacy of the intervention, it reignited debate about the provision of protective kit, especially body armour, issued to frontline personnel.
Ministry of Defence arguments about ‘Just in Time’ procurement and its successes in ramping up the quality and quantity of all the kit issued to the military could not change the public perception: Service personnel had paid, and were continuing to pay, the price for the trigger-happy Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown going to war on the cheap.
As far as voters were concerned, seen all too clearly at Wootton Bassett, soldiers were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. In exchange, the least the Government could do was reciprocate with the best practical support. This mutual obligation summed up the Military Covenant between soldiers and the nation. Encouraged by the Cameron-led Opposition, the public judged that the government had not kept its side of the bargain: Labour had broken the Covenant. It would be seen to have the blood of dead Service personnel on its hands.
Although political wisdom suggests there are no votes in defence, the welfare of the Forces’ community of serving personnel, veterans and their families was a factor in the 2010 election. The Conservatives issued their New Covenant for Our Armed Forces and their Families, while in the second sentence of Labour’s manifesto, Gordon Brown stated that troops fighting in Afghanistan ‘bring great pride and credit to our country; we honour and will always support them’.
Unlike Labour’s ‘Wars of Choice’, the Coronavirus is beyond the Government’s control. However, the National Security Strategy of 2010 and 2015 both acknowledged that, like a terrorist attack or war, a global health pandemic was a Tier One threat. Covid 19 was therefore hardly unforeseen, which raises legitimate questions about the apparent absence of any preparedness. Last week, the BBC’s Panorama asked Has the Government Failed the NHS?
The frontline in our war against a deadly virus is Britain’s hospitals and care homes, those doing battle doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers. Panorama painted a picture of the risks they are running because the inadequacy of PPE supplies. At the time of writing, an estimated 120 have died.
Accused, subsequently, of pro-Labour bias, the programme – as sobering to watch as the Wootton Basset repatriations – was clear where the blame lies: ‘The Government failed to buy the essential items that were needed in a pandemic.’
Really? The Government? Or those in charge of procurement and distribution within the NHS have failed? And who is culpable in privately-owned care homes?
Last week, the Prime Minister reminded us that the shortage of PPE was a global problem. It is unlikely there will be much sympathy for this line of argument among a public encouraged by the Government to intensify its emotional engagement with the NHS and its staff, whether by drawing rainbows, clapping for carers or observing a minute’s silence for those who have died.
Iraq and Afghanistan saw the rise of ‘lawfare’ – i.e. the creep of civilian law, particularly the Human Rights Act, into the battle space. It is inconceivable that lawyers will not soon be testing the government’s duty of care to frontline NHS staff in connection with PPE.
Any future inquests into PPE-related deaths could well prove as difficult for this Government as they were for Gordon Brown’s. The outspokenness of one coroner into the failures in the provision of protective kit to Servicemen and women added to voters’ perception that Labour simply hadn’t cared enough. This was unfair to many Labour ministers, but it stuck.
Right now, it seems that the Government has truly bought into Nye Bevan’s maxim that the dropping of a bedpan in Tregedar should reverberate in Whitehall. If, however, agencies outside its control might have been responsible for the lack of PPE that has contributed to the deaths of NHS staff and care-workers, the government should start making this clear.