The healing power of bridges and tunnels

Over/under: Experts will decide if a bridge or tunnel could stretch across the Irish Sea. © Getty

Have bridges and tunnels saved more lives than medicine? Yesterday a formal feasibility study was launched into Boris Johnson’s dream of a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

On a calm day, if you stand on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, you can see the coast of Antrim, in Northern Ireland, above an unruffled blue sea.

Soon, if you stand at the same spot, you might see a line of lorries further south crossing a giant concrete bridge.

This is because the UK government has announced a study into the feasibility of building a “fixed link” between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Finding a way to cross the sea, whether by building a tunnel below the water, or building a bridge above, will be a huge engineering challenge.

Not least among the difficulties would be running the bridge over Beaufort’s Dyke. This is a trench in the sea around 300 metres deep – roughly the height of the Eiffel Tower. To make matters worse, 1,000,000 tonnes of munitions have historically been dumped into it by the UK military.

Some suggest that the money required would be better spent elsewhere, particularly in a time of public health crisis. Bridges and tunnels, they argue, should not be a priority.

If one takes the long view, however, bridges and tunnels have had a monumental impact on public health around the world.

Tunnels have been dug for thousands of years to provide drinking water and irrigate crops more effectively.

Three thousand years ago, the Persians began digging tunnels called qanats, which allowed water to be brought from a well to another region; they could even bring ice to the desert.

The Romans were able to use a type of bridge called an aqueduct to bring water to dry places, such as the city of Nimes, which would not have been able to exist without the Pont du Gard.

At a time when medicine had not progressed much beyond trepanation, these advances in bridge-building and tunnelling allowed civilisations to flourish.

Now, bridges connect countries such as Malaysia and Singapore; Sweden and Denmark; and Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

Such connections are emblematic of international trade that has driven a global rise in living standards. Global life expectancy has risen from 30 in 1800 to 73 today.

While some of that gain is due to medical advances, some of it, too, can be traced to engineers in tunnels.

In 1858, London was beset by a foul smell called “the great stink”. This was because sewage was being dumped into the Thames.

As a consequence, Parliament commissioned an engineer called Joseph Bazalgette to build a new sewer system.

The resulting network of tunnels spared the noses of MPs. But more importantly, it helped prevent outbreaks of cholera, saving thousands of lives at a point when doctors still believed cholera was spread by miasma.

Without sanitation and transport links, society would crumble.

The bridge is the ultimate symbol of connection. Amid political tensions within the UK – and between it and the Republic of Ireland – it makes sense for Boris Johnson to want to be thought of as a bridge-builder… even if that bridge is a tunnel.

So, have they saved more lives than medicine?

Building bridges

Yes, say some. The bridge and the tunnel have underpinned the connections that have helped to ensure a more peaceful, healthy and prosperous world. Up until the discovery of germs and vaccinations, medicine could hardly be said to have saved many lives at all. Meanwhile, bridges and tunnels have brought people water and vital goods, making their lives possible.

No, say others. Between 1990 and 2015, medical innovations extended human lives by about 50 million years. One treatment, oral rehydration therapy, has saved around 70 million lives since the 1970s. While a bridge or a tunnel might provide access to goods or clean water, to call that saving lives seems to miss the point, just as saying farmers or supermarkets save lives would.

You Decide

  1. Which is more important, a vaccine or the technology that allows a vaccine to be transported?
  2. Should the government calculate the value of all its actions in terms of the number of lives it saves?


  1. After looking at some famous bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge, The Rialto Bridge, Alcantara and Tower Bridge, pick a favourite and draw it. Include five interesting facts about the bridge around the borders of your drawing.
  2. Have a balloon debate in class, in which each person has to make a speech explaining why they deserve to stay in a sinking hot air balloon. Assign each person a different profession – for example, architect, doctor, teacher, mechanic – and see whose job is most valued.

Some People Say...

“A great bridge is a great monument which should serve to make known the splendour and genius of a nation.”

Jean Peronet (1708 – 1794), French architect and engineer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The longest sea bridge in the world is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai. This bridge connects Hong Kong, Macau and the Chinese Mainland. The bridge is 55km long, goes underwater through a tunnel at one point and is supported by an artificial island. The bridge was opened in 2018.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what it means to save a life. Because everyone dies eventually, some people measure health benefits using a metric called Quality-Adjusted Life Years. The idea is that one year of life in perfect health is 1 QALY. If someone invents a medicine that keeps you alive for 5 years longer, but you feel 50% less well, this might be calculated as 2.5 QALY. Others suggest that this way of calculating the value of life is flawed and devalues disabled people.

Word Watch

A Scottish word for a rounded hill. The Mull of Kintyre is also the subject of a song by former Beatle Paul McCartney.
Further south
The proposed departure point from Scotland has been debated. One of the shortest is from the town of Portpatrick in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland. Mull of Kintyre itself is close to Northern Ireland but probably too far from transport links within Scotland.
Fixed link
Because it is unclear whether a bridge or a tunnel would be more practical, this term is used to group together both, as opposed to a ferry, which is not fixed.
Weapons and ammunition. Most of the weapons were dumped between 1920 and 1970. A large number of bombs washed ashore in Scotland in 1995 after they were disturbed by the construction of a gas pipeline.
To provide water to crops artificially.
Pont du Gard
This bridge in France is one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts.
The cutting of holes into the skull. This has been practised by many cultures since prehistoric times. Though this was often for ritual purposes, there is some evidence it was also used as a treatment for head wounds and even headaches.
Bad air. The theory that disease was spread by low quality air rather than by germs persisted until the 1880s.


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