14:06 GMT23 September 2020
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    A militaristic vibe hung over the 22nd April Downing Street coronavirus briefing, not merely because acting Prime Minister Dominic Raab paid tribute to the British armed forces for their role in providing support to the UK’s battle with the pandemic.

    In addition to being joined chief medical officer Chris Whitty, chief of UK defence staff General Sir Nick Carter, the country’s most senior military officer, appeared at the briefing for the very first time.

    “The sight of our armed forces working side-by-side with NHS staff offers reassurance we will come through this crisis. It's only fitting to pay tribute to the amazing work of our armed forces and the Ministry of Defence. They’ve been there every step of the way, helping reinforce our critical care capacity, supporting local resilience in delivering personal protective equipment where it’s needed most and [delivering] the mobile labs critical to ramping-up testing capacity right across the country,” Raab waxed.

    The Foreign Secretary went on to praise the military for its role in constructing the NHS Nightingale hospital in London’s docklands - as a result of the military’s efforts, he claimed hospitals “have been able to treat more patients”, “save more lives” and ensure “the peak of this virus has not overwhelmed the NHS”.

    Media reporting on 4,000-bed NHS unit has invariably and overwhelmingly focused on the crusading role of the British army in its building, with many soldiers in uniform featuring prominently in both TV news segments and articles thereof - The Daily Mail went so far as to compare the vast undertaking to the Battle of the Somme, the epic World War I offensive fought by the French and British armies against the German Empire.

    ​The apparent success of Nightingale hospital’s construction spurred security pundit Ian Acheson to state “it’s time to send in the generals” to deal with the shortage of personal protective equipment in the UK.

    “There’s only one trusted organisation built for the task of creating, maintaining, and delivering this sort of supply chain in extremely adverse conditions where command and control of logistics are essential. It’s no coincidence the man who drove the creation of London’s Nightingale hospital for 5,000 potential Covid patients in 10 days was a Colonel in the Army medical services. This extraordinary feat of logistical planning was only possible because it was driven not as a bureaucratic abstraction but by people who have the know-how, authority and organisational discipline to make things happen. The abject failure of the supply chain for PPE is a problem we should be throwing Generals at. In this instance, war metaphors are absolutely appropriate. This issue was born for the sort of leadership our armed forces are renowned for,” he wrote on CapX.

    ​However, questions have been raised about the utility, effectiveness and necessity of the unit, with some going to far as to suggest the entire exercise was in fact a publicity stunt for the military. Around a month after work on the building completed, it remains almost entirely empty, with discussion of whether it could be ‘repurposed’ to treat non-coronavirus patients in order to clear a mounting backlog of cancelled operations and treatments.

    ​In all, just 41 patients have been treated at the site, while the transfer of over 30 patients to the hospital was cancelled due to staffing shortages. Of those treated, four have died and seven have been discharged to a less critical level of care - just 30 continue to be treated.

    Get Carter

    In his speech at the 22nd April Downing Street briefing, General Carter outlined a number of areas where the military was supporting the government’s coronavirus in a variety of fields.

    “It has involved defence civilians, defence contractors, scientists from Porton Down and something called the engineer and logistics staff corps where we bring in people from industry who work inside the military in times of crisis and provide expert support for how we might link in to the civilian community and indeed industrial support,” he said.

    In particular however, the army’s now-notorious 77 Brigade was said to have been “helping quash rumours” and “counter disinformation”.

    The official British army website listing for 77 Brigade offers little illumination on the unit’s raison d’etre or modus operandi, merely describing its aim as “[challenging] the difficulties of modern warfare using non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviours of the opposing forces and adversaries”. An accompanying ‘What We Do’ section states the endeavour engages in “audience, actor and adversary analysis”, “information activity and outreach”, “counter-adversarial information activity”, “collecting” and “disseminating” media, and monitoring and evaluating “the information environment”.

    ​Much more candid insight was offered by none other than General Carter in a February 2018 speech to the Royal United Services Institute. Openly referring to 77 Brigade as an “information warfare” initiative affording the military “the capability to compete in the war of narratives at the tactical level”.

    The exactitudes of 77 Brigade’s “information warfare” activities during the coronavirus crisis went unelucidated by General Carter, but it’s known the unit maintains an extensive network of bogus accounts on Twitter and other social media platforms to promulgate pro-government messages and attack dissenting voices, and achieve “behavioural change” - the Brigade is seemingly assisted in this by Twitter executive Gordon MacMillan, who is a reservist in the unit.

    ​It may be significant the UK Government was recently forced to deny claims it was running a network of accounts on Twitter imitating NHS staff, which universally advocated for “herd mentality” and unquestioning support for Whitehall’s coronavirus policies.


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