Journal Column – Communication key to the war on Covid-19

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Communication is the key to winning the war on Covid-19

After the end of WW2, NATO forces were stationed in Germany as the first line of defence against threats of the then Warsaw Pact.  For years both the Warsaw Pact and NATO would flex military muscles, rattle sabres and seek to portray each other as the greater military force.

This was known as the “Cold War” and thankfully it never progressed to being a hot one. After the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat of WW3 diminished and NATO began to withdraw its military presence from Europe and all but a token presence remained by 2015.

In the mid 1980’s I had the honour of serving in the military and for a while was stationed in the HQ of the British Army of Rhine (BAOR).

Over the years, NATO would undergo many manoeuvres and exercises where it would divide itself between Red forces (Warsaw Pact) and Blue forces (NATO), then practice going to war.  The bullets may have been blanks and casualties abstract but to all intents and purposes the strategy, execution and outcomes were as authentic as they could be without being real.

Being in the command centre, I learned much watching and listening to the senior officers planning their strategies and tactics, then ordering the various units and brigades to undertake them.  There was a particular manoeuvre in 1987 that I’ll never forget.  The General officer commanding was giving a post exercise debrief to the officers and soldiers of the HQ when he made it abundantly clear the single most important thing in winning a war is “communication”. It wasn’t the side with the most soldiers or the biggest guns, it was the side that made the best use of effective communication that would eventually overcome and win.

The General was correct in saying good communication is the key to victory.  There are many examples in history of where communication has been the principle cause for the eventual outcome of a particular battle or conflict. The clever, miscommunication, to the German forces, on the location for the D-Day landings being one of the best examples of communication securing victory.  In contrast, is the massacre of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” during the Crimean war.  The Light Brigade had been ordered to chase a retreating Russian artillery company. However, poor communication meant that they instead fought a different much larger, more prepared army and suffered heavy losses as a result.

It’s easier than we think for messages and communication to be misinterpreted or distorted. The adage “send reinforcements I’m going to advance” ending up as “send three and fourpence I’m going to a dance” has its origins when military orders were sent via a series of radio relays. Each operator would listen to a command then repeat it to the next operator in a series.  Indeed, if you’ve ever played “Chinese whispers” then you’ll be familiar with how the frequent passing on of messages can end up being distorted and ultimately end up very different to the original.

Since the beginning of the year, there has been a new world war.  Not a conflict between nations, but one between humans and a contagion called Covid-19.

Intelligence has identified that Covid-19 is highly contagious, but easily killed and appears to be more dangerous to the weak and elderly.

In its fight against the virus, the government has unleashed a barrage of weapons from a wide-reaching armoury consisting of: Hand sanitizers, face masks, social distancing, regional tiers, PPE, travel bans, test and trace apps and a figuratively speaking nuclear option – A national lock-down.  The nuclear option was first used in March and while it appeared to have a reasonable impact on suppressing the virus there was a lot of collateral damage.  Casualties included a massive economic slump, bust businesses, huge unemployment and loss of routine NHS treatments.  Treasury medics dispensed furlough bandages but they were only able to temporarily slow the economic haemorrhaging.

It’s a shame the PM and his cabal of advisors in the SAGE committee didn’t have a veteran military General there to help them effectively weaponise communication.

It’s a shame because, just like any other battle, the secret to reducing casualties and ultimate victory is effective use of communication.

From the beginning, the government has mishandled, and continues to mishandle, communication in the fight against Covid-19. It started with a policy of panic and scare mongering equating coronavirus to a biblical plague. Then came a mishmash of statistics and projections that never materialised. Then it was revealed thousands of mainly young people had caught it with few or no symptoms. Then we got a crazy mixed bag of regional tiers and restrictions that constantly changed and were often different depending on where you lived. Then we got told to “eat out to help out,” then a few weeks later told pubs and restaurants will close again.  Then we got “work from home”, which later became “go back to the office”, and now it’s back to “work from home” again. Despite many warning of more collateral damage the second nuclear lock-down was deployed this morning.  All this crazy disjointed communication is not helped either by the Chinese whispers that is social media. No wonder there is widespread desertion and insubordination.

Sadly, it’s been more of a Charge of the Light Brigade than a D-Day.

Send three and fourpence I’m going to a dance.



This column was first published in the Newcastle Journal on the 5th November 2020