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Editor’s note: This article was entered into the Wavell Room corona virus competition and finished in the top 5.
Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic has seen hundreds of UK technology companies commit resources to build capabilities that will help fight the virus. This mindset of collaboration will likely outlast the pandemic, leading to a whole-of-society approach to procuring vital technological capabilities to respond to crises. This presents an opportunity for the UK Government to reassess its relationship with the private sector, and improve collaboration to build sovereign capabilities that will protect national interests against threats.
At the start of April 2020, SL Engineering, a Lincolnshire-based engineering company, was contacted by Sharing in Growth, a Government backed programme to raise the capability of UK Aerospace suppliers. They wanted SL Engineering to join the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium, and help make vital components for hospital ventilators. In just one week, the company had started production and was shipping components to a site in Luton for assembly. They soon became an essential industry supplier, with production going on for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and staff working 12 hour shifts to meet demand. This is but one example of the many technology and manufacturing companies that have committed time and resources to help the UK respond to COVID-19. The pandemic has given private technology companies the opportunity to collaborate with Government to build capabilities and protect the national interest, and shown what can be achieved through increased public and private sector cooperation. This paper argues that this collaborative approach to procurement should continue after the pandemic ends to protect national interests in the area of Defence and Security.
A whole-of-society approach to building up vital technological capabilities to respond to threats will outlast the pandemic. In April, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £1.25 billion package to support innovative technology and life sciences firms through the crisis, asserting that: “Our start-ups and businesses driving research and development are one of our great economic strengths, and will help power our growth out of the coronavirus crisis.” In addition to driving economic strength and growth, protecting and building innovative technological capabilities through collaboration will also help to securitise national interests. The pandemic therefore presents an opportunity for the Government to reassess its relationship with the private sector ahead of the Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review, and should inform the Government’s approach to procuring cutting-edge technological capabilities by increasing future collaboration.
The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of protecting and building the UK’s technological capabilities. Technology has been central to the UK’s response to the virus in all domains, both to fight the virus and to reduce its impact on society. It has supported the work of medical experts, offering tools to monitor and trace the pandemic and machine learning to enhance human research. Technology has also been used to increase the supply of vital personal protective equipment (PPE) including to 3D print parts for equipment, and to link engineers and manufacturing professionals through online platforms. The pandemic has also reinforced our reliance on technology in daily life to keep the economy going. Video conferencing applications and instant messaging allow individuals to continue their work online under the guise of normality, and to continue communicating with friends and family. Moreover, technology will be fundamental to ending lockdown and reducing cases of the virus. Therefore, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that technological innovation, and the resilience it brings, are of the utmost importance in crises.
During the pandemic, the Government has called upon business to help tackle and offset the impact of the virus. As well as asking businesses to provide the NHS with vital PPE, the Government asked for “support in the production and supply of ventilators and ventilator components” after it was revealed that there was a critical shortage in supply. In response, a range of industrial, technological and engineering businesses came together to manufacture medical grade ventilators as part of the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium. Coverage of the consortium has focused on the efforts of global manufacturing companies, including GKN, Babcock, BAE Systems, Dyson and F1 companies such as Williams and McLaren. However, the consortium has also seen the likes of such giants partnering with regional manufacturing companies like the small but mighty SL Engineering. Although smaller companies such as SL Engineering, West Midlands based A&M EDM, and Prescot based Beverston Engineering, are not acknowledged on the official Ventilator Challenge UK website, the efforts of small, agile, companies have been instrumental in condensing traditional manufacturing timeframes and rapidly increasing output to the NHS front line.
However, the pandemic has also tested the limits of productive collaboration and highlighted issues to address in future if the Government continues to embrace collaboration. The Government has faced criticism for a lack of clarity around the initial instructions to the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium, namely whether manufacturers should improve on existing ventilator models or invent entirely new solutions. Although the chairman of Ventilator Challenge UK, Dick Elsy, has dismissed criticism of the Government’s approach to procuring ventilators, issues around regulatory approval and supply chain limitations have also been raised by regulatory bodies such as Make UK and The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
It is important for the Government to learn from the successes and failures of the ventilator procurement process, which has shown, more than anything, the importance of communicating clear and consistent aims and objectives. If a whole-of-society approach is indeed to continue after the pandemic, the Government must seek to improve the narrative and debate around collective procurement to ensure clarity and cohesion. Moreover, this process has reinforced that procurement should be quicker and more inclusive, opening up previously inaccessible programmes to a broader range of commercial partners. This should include start-ups and smaller and medium sized businesses, to combine agility, adaptability, and expertise to create technological solutions. The Government should also improve infrastructure to facilitate this shift, such as smoothing the path for regulatory approval, and ensuring that there is an ongoing level of engagement with private sector companies rather than bringing them in at the last minute during a crisis.
Although COVID-19 has not imposed the same level of existential threat to society faced during the Cold War, it has tested the resilience of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, and the rationing of essential items and calls to UK manufacturers to create ventilators and PPE echo Government measures during WW2. General Sir Nick Carter’s memo to military commanders about preparations for tackling the COVID-19 outbreak likened the UK military response to the pandemic to a six-month operational tour. By testing resilience, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Government to consider how it protects essential infrastructure. Our national response to the pandemic, therefore, sheds invaluable light on how to approach matters of Defence and Security.
According to Tech Nation’s 2020 report, the UK invested a record £10.01 billion in the tech sector in 2019, growing 44% year on year. It found that if this continues, the UK will overtake China as the second largest tech country in the world. In an age of Great Power competition, with the likes of Russia and China seeking to reshape the global arena to their strategic advantage, it is more important than ever for the UK to invest in technology and harness developments to counter hard and soft military power that could be used to erode sovereignty and undermine influence and operations. The pandemic has brought questions regarding the UK’s sovereign technological capabilities and global commercial competition to the fore, particularly as tensions with China have significantly increased as a result of the pandemic. Indeed, it has led members of the ruling Conservative Party to launch the China Research Group after senior party members called for a reassessment of Sino-British relations in light of their government’s handling of the outbreak.
However, even prior to the pandemic, changes in modern warfare and tensions with adversaries had highlighted the importance of protecting sovereign capabilities and maintaining an edge over commercial competition. In order to preserve sovereign capabilities, the UK must work harder to protect key industries and capabilities. The nation must ensure unparalleled network resilience to prevent hostile actors from gaining access to classified information that could give opponents a competitive advantage. Industrial espionage is increasingly a challenge to both Government and the private sector, and closer links must also be forged between academic, industry, policy makers, and the armed forces, to ensure broad expertise and skill sets are shared to inform solutions. Just as technology companies must maintain their competitive advantage over adversaries through innovation, and are constantly evolving and modernising, the Government must maintain a competitive advantage over adversaries to secure national interests. National interests are aligned in this sense, and the UK must embrace a whole-of-society approach to building sovereign technological capabilities.
To conclude, the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate a shift in the Government’s approach towards technological innovation with agile, smaller companies, to create cutting edge technological solutions to threats. As well as enhancing the UK’s status as a leader in the tech sector, this would protect the UK’s national interests in response to isolationism, industrial espionage, and other damaging geopolitical trends. As we have seen from the heroic efforts of small and medium sized companies like SL Engineering during the pandemic, collaborating with unlikely or previously overlooked partners can produce exceptional results. Defence must learn from this experience, and remember the efforts of such companies, who stepped up when it counted. Embracing a cohesive, collective approach to building up the nation’s technological capabilities will ensure that the companies that can help are empowered to do so.