Virus brings a return of the Dunkirk spirit

Little ship, big hearts: The NHS has asked volunteers to work for 16 hours per month.

Is it a good comparison? With tens of thousands of people volunteering to help with Britain’s vaccination programme, some see a parallel with the greatest rescue operation of World War Two.

For the soldiers pinned down on the sand in the last week of May 1940, there was little hope of escape. Outflanked by a rapid German advance, the British Expeditionary Force had been forced back to Dunkirk on the French coast. Now, with the harbour destroyed by bombing, they could only be evacuated from the beach, where the water was too shallow for the Navy’s large ships to reach them.

Experts believed that 10,000 at most might be saved. But then something close to a miracle happened. The British government made an appeal for anyone with a seaworthy boat to set out from England to help – and soon a ramshackle fleet of private cruisers, fishing boats and river ferries was crossing the English Channel.

Braving enemy fire, the 860 vessels with their civilian crews took off load after load of exhausted soldiers. By the time the operation ended on 4 June, the “little ships”, as they came to be known, had rescued 200,000 British and 140,000 French troops.

Ever since, the term “Dunkirk spirit” has been used to sum up a precious quality: the nation’s ability to come together with courage and resourcefulness to get through a crisis. And some commentators believe that Britain’s mass vaccination programme against Covid-19 has summoned up exactly that.

In The Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff described the scene in hastily adapted conference centres and cathedrals, where “eminent consultants cheerfully muck in with a volunteer army tens of thousands strong, some of whom have spent their weekends training to wield the needle, while others help to keep records or gently steer people around the building.”

When her father got his jab, she added, “he came away amazed by the number of helpers, but also by the kindness… For some older people living alone, it will be the first human touch they have felt in months of frightened isolation.”

It was, she concluded, like seeing the little ships at Dunkirk “helmed by everyone from out-of-work actors and office workers to students and retired nurses”.

In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore described the transformation of the school in his Sussex village into a vaccination centre. “There is no point in pretending that the process has been easy,” he wrote; the GPs in charge were “cheerful but harassed”. But all sorts of people were rallying round:

“Our project is managed by a former BA pilot, who seems good at making things happen. Fellow villagers who have engaged with the process have been impressed by the ‘can-do’ spirit.”

Among the volunteers in London is Lucy Aerts, an HR director who wanted to show her thanks to the NHS for life-saving cancer treatment. “For me, one of the best things is the community spirit,” she told the Sunday Times. “I’ve met some incredibly talented and gifted young people. They have such a brilliant attitude”.

Is it a good comparison?

Braving the waves

Some say, no. The pandemic is constantly compared to a war, but in reality, it is something completely different. The volunteers at vaccination centres are certainly risking their health, but it is not as dangerous as being bombed and shelled. Those who make the comparison are insulting the memory of the hundreds of brave people who dared to set out in the little boats.

Others argue that today’s volunteers may be taking a smaller risk, but – given how infectious the virus is – it is still considerable. To see men and women from all walks of life offer their services to help others is truly inspiring. Most of them are as new to medicine as the Dunkirk volunteers were to warfare, and the number of lives they are helping to save could be just as great.

You Decide

  1. Would you have more confidence in someone who has volunteered to do a job or in someone who is being paid for it?
  2. Britain plans to vaccinate as many people as possible before giving the highly vulnerable a second dose. Is this priority right?


  1. The little ships at Dunkirk were awarded a special flag, the Dunkirk Jack, combining the town’s coat of arms with the St George’s Cross. Design a flag for the vaccination volunteers.
  2. Paul Gallico’s classic novella The Snow Goose interweaves the tale of a little ship with that of a wild bird. Write a story about either the Dunkirk evacuation or the vaccination programme involving a pet animal.

Some People Say...

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948), Indian politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Britain is far ahead of most other countries with its vaccination programme. More than four million people have had a first dose; at the present rate, nearly 12 million will have been vaccinated by mid-February – and the government believes that its target of 15 million might yet be achieved. The only countries which have delivered more doses of vaccine per head of population are the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the efficiency of the vaccination programme makes up for Britain’s earlier failings. Yesterday, 1,820 deaths were recorded, bringing the total to over 90,000; only Italy has had more deaths per 1,000 people. Government supporters argue that not all countries record deaths as carefully; that Britain has a high proportion of old people, because the NHS cares for them so well; and that as a small island with large cities it is particularly vulnerable.

Word Watch

To outflank an army is to move around the side of the soldiers so as to overwhelm them.
British Expeditionary Force
The name given to the troops sent to defend France in September 1939.
The British situation would have been much worse if the German advance on the town had not been halted for three days, for reasons which are not clear. One theory is that Hitler wanted to make peace with Britain before invading Russia.
Fragile or only just holding together. It is related to the word “ransacked”.
French troops
Many of these quickly returned to France and continued to fight the Germans until the country surrendered at the end of June 1940.
Particularly good places for vaccination centres because they are spacious and often draughty, so the risk of the virus being passed on is comparatively small.
Steered. The helm is the part of a boat which controls the rudder.
Short for Human Resources, the department in a company responsible for looking after its employees.


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