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24 October 2020

The Covid Support Force

Tag(s): Current Affairs, History
Livery companies in the City of London have long held strong relationships with the Armed Forces. In the early days the Kings and Queens of the realm relied on livery companies for financing their military excursions. Mostly this was done on a mutually beneficial basis in the sense that the Crown granted charters to livery companies which effectively gave them monopolies over trade in the City of London and in return expected this financial support. Before banks were created livery companies effectively took that role. This led to tension in the 17th century when the Stuart kings who had not been brought up in the tradition of Magna Carta did not understand the privileges that Magna Carta gave to livery companies and instead sought to apply excessive taxation. Both James I and Charles I were guilty of this and the City greatly resented it to the point that when Charles I sought finance for his war against Oliver Cromwell the City declined to help him and instead supported Cromwell thus effectively deciding which way the Civil War would go.

Even in the 18th-century these tensions would re-emerge from time to time and one Master was jailed because he declined to supply the finance for King George to build a new ship. But by this time there were alternative sources of finance and, of course, from the days of William Pitt income tax was introduced to finance the Napoleonic wars on the understanding that it would be temporary. No such luck.

The relationships between livery companies and the armed forces continue to this day but are now entirely on a friendly footing. There are 110 livery companies with over 200 affiliations with branches of the Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Marines, the Royal Air Force and other bodies such as cadet forces. My own livery company, the Worshipful Company of Marketors, has only been going for 45 years but for half of that time has had a strong relationship with 151 Regiment, a reserve regiment focused on logistics. This week I attended a Zoom call when the Regiment’s commanding officer Lt Col Deborah Taylor gave a fascinating talk about 151 Regiment’s contribution to the Covid Support Force and its work around motivation and retention of reserves.

The forerunner of the Reserves was the Territorial Army and my father joined up with them six months before the declaration of the Second World War when he was just 19. He trained with them and later transferred to the Royal Artillery.

The reserves form an increasingly important part of the Army as the total number of full time soldiers has been drastically reduced but at the same time the Army has sought to increase its number of reserve forces. The reservists have four roles. Firstly, to protect the UK and the Covid Support Force is an example of that. Secondly, to prevent conflict and so, for example, reservists have always been among those serving under the UN banner on the Cyprus Green Line to keep the peace between the Greek and Turkish parts of Cyprus. Thirdly, to deal with disasters and reservists have been involved in helping to clear up after some of the recent substantial hurricane damage in different parts of the world. And fourthly, to fight the nation’s enemies and reservists have been involved in every operation over the last 40 years, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they were also all involved in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia and of course in Northern Ireland. But they also played an important part in helping during the London Olympics in 2012.

151 Regiment has a compliment of 403 members plus 33 regulars and 20 full-time administrative staff. At present they number 360 members with 31 regulars and 18 administrative staff. Their fleet includes Land Rovers, minibuses, drop vehicles, 36 six ton work horses and some commercial vehicles on a rental basis. Members are able to gain trade qualifications through their training thus supporting their own civilian career development. The Army teaches them the skills of a soldier, driving heavy goods vehicles and there are some communication specialists. They gain leadership skills and professional development. One of their chefs actually returned to a Michelin starred private restaurant but still helps prepare meals for the regiment.

On March 19, 2020 the Ministry of Defence announced the formation of the Covid Support Force as part of its measures to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak. The Support Force comprised 20,000 military personnel and was tasked with supporting public services. This included the training of 150 Military Personnel to drive oxygen tankers to support the National Health Service. In April 2020, an additional 3000 service personnel joined the Covid Support Force.

151 regiment received orders to help support the NHS in the immediate replenishment of PPE. They were in a good position to do this as one of their units is based in Maidenhead where there is also an NHS warehouse. Within hours of the announcement of the lockdown they had received their task and had organised the first planning cycle. By 8am on the following day the plan was secured and army reserves volunteers were notified. By 2pm that day the first staff were in place. For the next three weeks 22 people operating on a 24-hour revolving shift rotation supported the NHS distribution of PPE. They served for 2016 working hours across the three week period with an overall productivity increase of 30%.

A normal period of notice to call up reservists is 180 days. This time they were at work on the same day. It was clear that the NHS could not cope with the demands being placed on the distribution centre and without the support of the regiment would have failed in its task. The task itself was really like you would find in an Argos store - that is unloading packets from shelves, putting them onto pallets and then on to trucks. I myself worked for six months in a supermarket when I was 16, initially in a part-time capacity and then full time as I waited between leaving my English school and going to America on an exchange programme. It is not particularly difficult but there is no question that people work at different speeds. NHS staff are unionised and the unions made it clear that this additional productivity was only acceptable during the crisis and once the crisis was over they would not accept this extra burden of work.

Nearly one third of the members of 151 Regiment volunteered for this extra service and would have been willing to keep going for longer. Many of their employers are large companies who are fully supportive of this measure. Unfortunately their offer was not taken up and Col Taylor had the challenge of keeping her members engaged, managing their expectations and taking the opportunity of the relaxation of the lockdown to bring in new programmes. But even during lockdown they found that there were some forms of training and motivation that could be managed very successfully over Zoom and she will continue to use these techniques even when things return to some kind of normal. Physical training was encouraged over Zoom and other health and well-being resources were brought into play. Smokers were encouraged to give up. Professional development of a soldier can still take place if he or she is sitting behind a PC.

Media coverage was very positive during this period and has helped recruitment significantly. The government made a serious mistake a few years ago outsourcing recruitment to a third party company. Recruitment is best conducted by regular soldiers in uniform who can tell real stories about serving on the front line. Col Taylor ensures that that kind of recruitment still takes place even if some of the early contact has been managed by the third party company. Her experience during this period has taught her that anything is possible particularly if you maintain flexibility at all times.

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