Before Parliament rose for Easter a couple of weeks ago, the Defence Secretary at the Despatch Box outlined the details of the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. And as ever, when defence policy is in question, we heard the familiar injunction reminding us that defence is the first duty of every Government.
But one thing that the last year has shown us is that the concept of defence has to be seen in a wider context. This doesn’t just encompass advances in drone, cyber-security and disruptive military technology, but also measures designed to mitigate against the risks posed by this and future pandemics. Covid-19 has had a greater impact on our freedoms and economy than any military conflict since the Second World War.
And while the vaccine rollout (particularly in the West Country) continues, it’s clear we need to develop and sustain a domestic vaccine capability in the years ahead if we are to protect the UK against splintering international supply chains which, inherently, are subject to logistical difficulties and political manoeuvring.
This pandemic has demonstrated that threats from viruses can rival military and security threats. Developing our defences against future pandemics must be a strategic priority – a view the Government is now acting on. The Prime Minister's announcement last week that approximately 60 million doses of the Novovax vaccine will be produced in the North East of England is hugely significant, as is the launch of the new Health Security Agency (in place of Public Health England) – which will have as its mission the monitoring of future epidemiological threats.
The stunning success of the UK's vaccination programme (which certainly seems to have turned the tide in our struggle against Covid-19), demonstrates the immense importance of science - and, indeed, the value of education and the transmission of knowledge. There can be no better exemplification of the value of apparently obscure knowledge than the global race for a vaccine. And, given the contribution that scientists have made, I do hope to see a renewed focus on education in the years ahead.
Churchill said that “the empires of the future will be empires of the mind” – a testament to the extraordinary power of innovation. The surest defence against future, unforeseen threats, is to ensure the next generation can value, acquire and wield knowledge in the best interests of all.
The pandemic has shown us that education and science are the most powerful weapons in overcoming the threats we face. I’d like to see yet more ambition in our schools and even stronger leadership. As we now know, it may well be our ability to meet epidemiological threats with scientific solutions that ensures our institutions and way of life are preserved for - and by – our children and grandchildren.