Defeating the Virus: Combining Operational Grip with Creative Thinking to deliver the Vaccine | Hok Yin Stephen Chiu


To consider the state of Britain before both the rise of Covid-19 and the last general election, the country had felt truly less than the sum of our parts. At the time, Brexit was unresolved, Unionism was under threat, and ten years of balancing spending after the 2008 financial crisis, had led to a sense of underlying anger in many of our left-behind towns, which felt under-invested and lacked social mobility.

Before the pandemic, 2020 had marked a welcome turning point for the country: the political deadlock was over. The next four and half years was supposed to be a period of rebuilding public trust in our government, Parliament, and institutions – to put it succinctly, a belief in Britain.

It would not be an understatement to say that Covid-19, as well as the UK response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, has put the country in a new state of crisis.

There has been a palpable tension in our public trust of science, of vaccines, of lockdowns, a deterioration of race relations, a rise of Scottish separatism, among other pertinent social issues.

To tackle this pessimistic outlook, the government needs to fight the virus, not as a crisis, but as an opportunity to succeed. Every decision and public relations action on Covid-19, must be driven by a motivation to build public trust and solidarity. We must not be shy to think creatively, and sometimes, that means looking at other successes and failures across the world.

The Global Picture

To assess the countries who have since declared victory over the pandemic, we begin with Shinzo Abe’s ‘Japan Model’ in May, New Zealand’s ‘proud’ victory in June, then China claimed to have won the ‘war against Covid-19’ in September, and more recently in December, Saudi Arabia announced victory with all its regions inside the ‘safe zone’. All these countries featured some combination of ruthless border controls, tough local lockdowns, focused test-and-trace systems, and the use of military resources to ramp up state capacity.

In the on-set, free movement and the European attitude to tourism and the economic impact, allowed the virus get out of control. The COG-UK Consortium, found some 77% of cases in Britain’s first wave, came via travellers from Italy, France, and Spain. The numbers became so high it was impossible to deal with, using the same tools available to Japan, New Zealand, China and Saudi Arabia. In June, the UK’s NHS test-and-trace were missing 33% of contacts; in November, Germany were ‘unable to trace 75% of new cases’.

A Turning Point for Britain

On the positive front, the Health Minister, Nadine Dorries had stressed, “there is only one way we can ‘exit’ full lockdown and that is when we have a vaccine. Until then, we need to find ways we can adapt society and strike a balance between the health of the nation and our economy”. In this context, the big picture had started to improve by November 2020, the non-profit Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was found to be up to 90% effective, followed by NHS Test and Trace successfully tracing more than 92% of contacts.

It is now 2021, the moment for Britain to follow through with our strategy against the virus, to deliver victory by vaccinating the country in record time.

It is no longer acceptable for the national narrative to be focussed on procuring millions of vaccines, but on nitty-gritty delivery, operational grip, and creative thinking. A former Downing Street strategy advisor, and others, have since pointed out, solving this bottleneck would be an “easy win for Boris” – indeed, an easy win for Britain.

Covid-19 offers ‘Global Britain’ an unique opportunity for the Government to showcase British state capacity at its finest. It can not just be about the UK being the biggest contributor to GAVI, the Global Vaccines Alliance.

Every medically-trained uniformed personnel not on foreign deployment, should be assigned to deliver vaccines across the UK. This should include the vast majority of the seven thousand soldiers serving under our Defence Medical Services – not just the 21 combat teams provisionally assigned; estimates based on reports from The Times, suggests that this is currently up to a mere 126 soldiers.

Moreover, as many Public Order Medics available, from the police, should be drafted to deliver the vaccine. To rendition Lord Hewart, not only must we deliver the vaccine quickly, it must be seen to be done in record time. Britain desperately needs to recover its confidence, internationally and domestically. There is no better opportunity in the backdrop of slogans like #BLM #ACAB #indyref2, but for the Government to show each and every citizen that our public servants and institutions are here to serve and reach everyone across the Isles, to ultimately save lives.

If we get this right, we set the example for fighting the virus, recovering our economy, and healing social divisions, to the rest of the world.

Harnessing British Businesses

This is not just about running a competent government, we have a chance to demonstrate also the merit, capacity, and generosity of British business.

Well-known SMEs, such as Brewdog, have already offered its venues to the Government for free, with their ‘waiting areas, huge refrigerators, and separate rooms for vaccinations, and an ace team’. This pandemic offers an example to the public, of the state working shoulder to shoulder with businesses – a free market economy with a social conscience, at its best.

In fact, we must not forget that Britain is powered by its thousands of small businesses, many sole traders, taking risks, employing the odd employee, and supporting their families. Given the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored in temperatures of 2-8°C, there should be no reason why we are not speaking to the Ice Cream Alliance about mobilising the existing network of the country’s 5,000 ice cream vans – to distribute the vaccine and health workers to rural communities and care homes across the country.

Covid-19, a calamity, has offered Britain a unique way forward to show why our government, Parliament, and institutions matter. It’s more than just fighting a virus, but about rebuilding our economy, and rebuilding public trust.

This is ultimately about believing in Britain, but more than that, it is about believing that Britain is a serious country with the operational grip and creative thinking that is moving towards declaring the first conclusive and real victory over the virus, and recover our international confidence.


Hok is a researcher at the Brain and Behaviour Lab, University of Warwick. His teaching interests include Electromechanical Systems Design, Automation and Robotics, and Engineering Business Management and Operations.


Photo Credit.

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