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military engineering on the frontline.

Standing alongside doctors and nurses on the frontline, the military response has ensured that the NHS has not been overwhelmed by the Covid-19 crisis.

In one of its biggest peacetime operations, the UK military has brought medical and engineering expertise to the pandemic response. With a flu pandemic response plan in place, Standing Joint Command (SJC) were ready to respond when the UK government issued an Activation Order to support the Covid-19 response on 28 February.

20,000 soldiers, mainly drawn from the Army, were stood up in what became known as Operation Rescript. Contrast that with a normal working day when just 30 men and women from the Army, Navy and Air Force are present at the SJC headquarters in Aldershot.

Resilience operations for the UK government

UK Lieutenant General Tyrone Urch is the Chief Royal Engineer and a civil engineer by training and has headed up resilience operations including wildfire response and flood and snow clearance. He was the commander for the Toddbrook reservoir response in August 2019 and is highly experienced in working for government departments from Defra and the Environment Agency to the Home Office.

SJC has three regiments, two in the south and one in the north, on permanent notice to provide a rapid response and guarantee jobs in civil engineering are carried out to the highest standards. But the 28 February was on a different scale altogether, and Urch admits to having no idea what 20,000 troops would be deployed to do. And then came the Nightingale Hospitals.

Starting in support of the NHS and Department of Health and Social Care, SJC was able to provide much-needed support with the planning, operation and logistics required to transform the Excel into a 4,000 bed hospital.

Building the Nightingales

Urch was able to draw on his expertise as a chartered engineer and Fellow of the ICE in combination with his military experience to meet the needs of the NHS. He drew on his experiences of working in South Sudan where command and control directed engineers, general staff and medical staff in carefully targeted deployments. It turned out this was the ideal model to support the NHS in a pandemic.

It was the military's civil engineering skills that were required and this support was critical. Few civilian contractors could be involved from the start of the project due to lack of safe working practices and testing, but when they finally came on stream, SJC was able to oversee the completion of 11 Nightingales around the country.
Stepping back from the Nightingales, SJC turned its attention to creating mobile testing units to meet the ambitious 100,000 tests a day target. These were ready to deploy within 3 weeks.

Skills and knowledge

So far, Operation Rescript has drawn on skills from designers, logisticians, engineering planners and trades. Reservists with jobs in civil engineering were also called upon and proved critical to delivering the Covid-19 response. Urich credits civilian employers for signing up to the Armed Forces Covenant which allows employees to serve when needed and the Engineering & Logistics Staff Corp who provided invaluable outside the box thinking. 

It's this expert response that has saved the NHS from being overwhelmed by the pandemic thus far, making Operation Rescript a civil engineering success story.

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