It's time the Government saw sense and sent the Army in to sort out the NHS crisis

Squaddies could be positioned in A&E triage nurses’ consulting rooms, under orders to fire at will at anyone who turns up with an ear infection, sore foot, or any ailment best dealt with in the first instance by a pharmacist

Matthew Norman
Sunday 12 February 2017 16:39
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It is reported that army personnel can opt out of going to war
It is reported that army personnel can opt out of going to war

Britain’s forced march towards becoming a pacifist nation gathers pace. The latest step on the road to being Switzerland, only without the money and the skiing, involves the Army.

That makes a lovely change, when recent military embarrassments have been exclusively naval. Admittedly, the Trident missile test which missed its target by several thousand miles was less alarming than it looked. All that meant, in practical terms, is that a warhead fired at Pyongyang might detonate anywhere from Tokyo to Canberra. Anyway, last week brought timely reassurance on the misguided nuke front, with the news that not a single British nuclear sub was at sea. If there’s any more foolproof a method of negating the risk of accidentally removing a major ally from the globe, I’d like to hear it.

Smarting from the Navy’s two pronged assault on the headlines, the Army finally counterstrikes with a cunning wheeze of its own. It is launching a two-year scheme, the Mail on Sunday reports, whereby personnel can not only work a three-day week, but may also opt out of fighting in any war.

The Ministry of Defence’s official reason for the two-year Flexible Duties Trial (open mostly to soldiers, though other forces are eligible) is concern about the number of personnel quitting over long, antisocial hours and being separated from loved ones while abroad. Their military career is playing merry hell with their home lives, and who can blame them for refusing to tolerate that?

For anyone who likes war films, the discovery that military service can keep you from your family would come as a visceral shock. You remember the tear-jerking scene in The Dambusters, when Guy Gibson refuses to fly a crucial mission because his Great Aunt Tabitha in Rottingdean has a heavy cold, and he’s worried it will go to her chest if he doesn’t get home to nurse her in person.

Yet however touching the MoD’s renewed commitment to the flexitime approach that saw us through two world wars, you wonder if the real incentive is financial. Most government decisions come down to money, and an impoverished MoD would relish savings from reduced hours and unclaimed £50 daily allowances for serving overseas.

But if its real motivation is opaque, the MoD’s broad message couldn’t be clearer. By letting personnel decline any gracious invitation to appear in war, at a time when the Army is smaller than it has been for two centuries, the Government is semi-officially announcing that until further notice, Britain, war-wise, is off games.

The numbers behind the NHS crisis

That isn’t set in stone. Suppose those pesky Argentines reinvade the Falklands, as they love hinting they will. A PM not averse to the Thatcher comparison might expect the MoD to ask its people if they’d mind awfully postponing that nursery decoration, and making their way to the South Atlantic for a rematch instead.

So yes, things could quickly change. But the vista of a shrunken army poised to go part time, with no carriers on the seas or nuclear subs beneath them, suggests a long overdue show of realism about our military capacity. Which seems as well, because we’d be stretched to win a war against Trumpton or Camberwick Green. If they allied themselves, we’d surrender to their Joint Chiefs (Generals Pugh, Pugh and Barney McGrew; and Field Marshall Windy Miller) within days.

For decades, politicians of all parties have plapped the lazy mantra that our military is “the best in the world”, just as they have about our NHS. If it was ever true of either, it isn’t now. The Army’s reputation took a terrible beating in Basra and Helmand. The health service, as an understandably bemused Jeremy Hunt half concedes (how could he see that coming from his vantage point as Health Secretary?) is visibly crumbling.

These institutions have been degraded by political incompetence and chronic underfunding, and the solution to their crises is to weld them together. Since we plainly lack the desire and capacity to fight, why not redeploy service personnel as NHS shock troops?

Military doctors and nurses would be priceless, but medically untrained troops also have a vital role to play. Squaddies could be positioned in A&E triage nurses’ consulting rooms, under orders to fire at will at anyone who turns up with an ear infection, sore foot, or any ailment best dealt with in the first instance by a pharmacist.

They’d have to shoot to kill, because the last thing any hospital needs is a gunshot victim bleeding out on a trolley midway through a refreshing 57-hour wait for an imaginary bed. But hey, cruel to be kind.

And since there is no prospect of using them in warfare, those two aircraft carriers should be converted into hospital ships. This would provide several thousand extra beds. Assuming military staff wouldn’t object to peaceful work in pleasant foreign parts, they should be sailed into the coastal waters of countries such as Cuba and New Zealand which train more than enough doctors for their own needs. All that fresh sea air and extra Vitamin D from the sunshine would do wonders for patient recovery.

With this dazzlingly simple idea, two atrophying entities could be synergised into one potentially adequate hybrid. This is how to rescue the NHS and give the military some purpose during an age of mandatory pacifism. In the war to save these beloved but ailing institutions, it’s all hands on deck.

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