This is an open letter to General Sir Nicholas Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff and a fellow alumni of mine. I have sent this letter in hard copy to General Carter at his office in the Ministry of Defence London, and copied it to the Prime Minister and also to my Member of Parliament. It’s all very well me getting things off my chest here on my blog, but it’s important to take practical steps to effect change as far as possible.
Dear General Carter
You and I attended Army Staff College, Camberley together in 1991. I was the first RAF Regiment officer ever to attend Army Staff College. A fellow RAF Regiment officer and good friend of mine followed in my shoes in 1994: he went on to become Air Marshal Sir Graham Stacey KBE CB whom you may know. Indeed, I attended Sir Graham’s Dining Out from the Royal Air Force at RAF Honington last year and had a beer with him then. I was selected for promotion to Wing Commander (Lieutenant Colonel) in 1994 but left the Royal Air Force for family reasons in 1995. I remain closely associated with the RAF Regiment. Here’s a clip from our Camberley course photograph, you top left and me on the right. We both look a little older now.
I’m concerned about the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Specifically, the government appears to be struggling with the first Principle of War, namely ‘Selection and Maintenance of the Aim’.
To be fair, the government’s aim (or mission) initially was ‘to protect the NHS in order to save lives’. That mission has been achieved. However, critically, it’s not clear what the government’s mission is now. The government appears to be floundering as it tries to decide how to release the country from lockdown. The risks are clear. There’s no immunity test for Covid-19. There’s no vaccine for Covid-19. We have no herd immunity to Covid-19.
Therefore, as and when lockdown is lifted, the prevalence of Covid-19 in the population will rise again. How can this not be the case because nothing has changed since the day before lockdown other than the capability and capacity of the NHS having been improved? We can’t spend the rest of our lives in lockdown. Indeed, we can’t spend the rest of our lives living in fear, wearing largely ineffective facemasks (the Covid-19 equivalent of a comfort blanket), distancing ourselves from each other indefinitely and standing on our doorsteps every Thursday evening clapping into the air. Society can’t function like this.
It doesn’t take an archbishop (nor indeed a British general) to work out that we’re going to have to take casualties in order to recover any sort of societal normality, not least to establish herd immunity – our greatest opportunity to survive Covid-19. Immunity testing and a vaccine (in particular) could be many months in the future. Indeed, we may never develop a vaccine.
Economists know what the answer is here: it’s called ‘utility’. In this context utility can be thought of as maximising happiness for the maximum number of people. At the moment, we’re maximising misery (indefinite lockdown and the wholesale destruction of the British economy) for the maximum number of people in order to prevent what could, at worst, be 510,000 Covid-19 deaths, ie 0.8% of the population (you or I could end up being one of those casualties).
Added to the normal rate of 600,000 deaths per year (you or I could end up being one of those casualties too), this means that we’re cratering the British economy for a generation and transforming our society into a near-dystopian way of life in order to reduce our total chance of dying of any cause in the next twelve months to under 1.75%. If this is an unacceptable death rate, then what is the government’s acceptable death rate? 1.5%? 1.0%? If the government’s objective is to reduce to an absolute minimum the number of Covid-19 deaths, how does the government foresee us ever building herd immunity (our greatest chance of surviving the virus)?
I accept that this is a desperately difficult decision for the government (and even that’s an understatement). However, what’s happening at the moment is the political equivalent of you planning a military campaign and making the mission not to defeat the enemy, but rather to protect every soldier’s life. We’ve got things arse about face which you’ll forgive me for saying – but which is true, isn’t it?
So, the British government’s mission focus must now shift to maximising the happiness of the maximum number of citizens whilst accepting that a tiny fraction of society will take a hit. It sounds brutal. It is brutal. That hit could include you or me or my dear 89-year-old mother. However, I’m having sleepless nights (literally) about the shocking destruction of the economy that’s now taking place and its implications for my children and even theirs too. I would wager that many if not most of my fellow citizens are unaware of the enormity of the economic disaster looming before us. The British people have been scared into ‘staying home’ and ‘staying safe’ to the point that, worryingly, polls show the majority still want to stay in the bunker – such has been the power of the government’s message (some might call it propaganda).
Therefore, I should like to request, sir, that – urgently – you use whatever influence you have to explain to the government the relevance and critical importance of the Principles of War, first and foremost of which is ‘Selection and Maintenance of the Aim’. You’ll know too that, in this context, the Principles include the need for ‘Offensive Action’ (get the economy working again) and ‘Maintenance of Morale’ (which speaks for itself).
Well done with your career achievements. I enjoyed my time at Army Staff College; I learned a great deal there and retain abiding respect for the Directing Staff and, indeed, for my fellow students which included you, of course.
I have copied this letter to the Prime Minister.
Keep buggering on.
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See you down the pub … eventually.