More than 10,000 servicemen and women will this week be deployed to help with the coronavirus emergency. Some 150 of them will be training as specialist drivers of oxygen carrying lorries for hospital and intensive care units. Others will be ensuring regular supplies to supermarkets and food centres for the vulnerable. Many will be working from special centres, with the unlikely name of Local Resilience Forums to oversee and boost local support agencies.
The troops are being deployed after a series of meetings between service chiefs, the Prime Minister and ministers. A senior officer is present at the main meetings of the emergency COBRA committee. Last week the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, made a low-key announcement that the military is to be deployed in the emergency under the terms of the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004, which lays down when and how the troops are to be called in to help the civil authorities.
What was not spelled out in Wallace’s statements, and the background briefings, is the scale of the envisaged military involvement in civil support during the crisis. Behind the 10,000 servicemen and women now about to be launched as the “Covid Force”, a further 10,000 have been put on standby, and the permanent Reserve have received letters warning that they are likely to be called up soon. The Reserve consists of those who have just left the forces, and under law are liable for call-up for a limited period afterwards.
Most of the Covid Force will be directed and coordinated from the Standing Joint Command based in Aldershot, part of the Army’s Home Command. This is now to be beefed up with a new Civil Contingency Command – final name as yet undecided – under a three star general. He is expected to be Lt Gen Ty Urch, currently the commander of Home Command.
Urch is a Royal Engineer with a distinguished background, including overseeing building hospitals and schools in the “hot” operational theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the centre of his command will be the Aldershot HQ and most of the specialists are from the 101 Logistics Brigade, which was used in civil support in the 2012 Olympics and the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic.
The Civil Contingency Command will have a wider range of responsibilities – and a bigger job to carry out than has been revealed and reported until now. “We have to put this on a campaign footing, with a spine of military command,” according to the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter.
The main roles will be driving, and the delivery of vital goods and equipment, ensuring security and supply at supermarkets, and assisting the police, ambulance, fire and prison services when requested. It is expected that more than the initial 20,000 will be required as the crisis runs through the summer, according to informed military sources. One military source explained: “The bottom line is that the troops and the volunteers are needed to ensure the NHS doesn’t collapse in the first surge of pandemic in the next few weeks, and even more when we get the expected second wave later in the summer.”
The need for troops to assist in law enforcement in case of civil disturbance is not ruled out.
The coronavirus pandemic has caught the government on the hop. The arrangements for the military to help the civil authorities though the Civil Contingencies Act seem based on a large amount of wishful thinking – that pandemic isn’t likely in the scheme of things, and might not be that severe if it does strike. But they have had ample warning. In 2015 Bill Gates spelled out in a Ted lecture the likelihood of a major threat to the global order from a pandemic. Noone important seemed prepared to listen.
In that same year, 2015, the Standing Joint Command in Aldershot was charged with the military involvement in civil contingency operations in a range of emergencies from terrorist attack and chemical spillage to major environmental disasters such as floods. The need for help for the civilian agencies by the military in an outbreak of major animal or human epidemic was mentioned almost as an afterthought.
Under the plan laid out in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2015, the civil contingencies remit for the military was to work through local centres called Local Resilience Forums, or LRF. These are hubs located in municipal offices, town halls, police headquarters, and fire brigade offices. Key specialists of the 10,000 now on active Covid Force duty will now be deploying as command cells in the LRFs, coordinating ancillary and volunteer services such as the British Red Cross and social assistance charities.
The LRF network is a cats cradle arrangement of varying degrees of effectiveness. “Some of them really work, and some LRFs seem to know what they are doing. Others are pretty dysfunctional,” according to Sir Nick Parker, now running the Team Rubicon NGO made up of expert veterans who have helped in dozens of human and natural disasters since they were set up only a few years ago.
In 2012 General Parker ran the military operation for the London Olympics – in which the services took over much of the security and crowd control, after the civilian contractor G4S fell over on the job. The troops not only worked with the spectators, but had to train the raw recruits for G4S for the subsequent Paralympics.
After the Olympics, Parker wrote a report recommending a small, highly professional dedicated civil contingency command should be set up permanently. The plan was something like the new Contingency Command, embracing the Covid Force, General Carter is to launch this week.
Resilience is a word much bandied about in military and security think tanks, but little understood by the public, and not many politicians either. It means the ability to respond in an emergency affecting civil society. It implies the need for backup from dedicated reserves from the military and voluntary agencies – in crises ranging from flood and weather disasters, terrorist attacks and pandemics. To face down the worst challenges, like the coronavirus emergency, a certain level of redundancy has to be built into the system – the spare, standby resources you always need when things threaten to get out of all control.
“Governments can rarely recognize the true nature of a crisis until they’re in the middle of one, as they are now,” says Elisabeth Braw, the world expert on resilience, civil contingency operations and counter-terror at the Royal United Services Institute. She believes Britain now should have its own permanent civil contingency command and force. The government could take a leaf out of the dedicated corps and agencies in Scandinavia, especially in Norway, Denmark and her native Sweden.
The Norwegian DSB – Directorate of Civil Protection and the Danes’ Directorate for Civil Protection, DEMA, have only about 1,000 personnel each, with conscripts and local volunteers. “They don’t have to be martial looking,” says Braw, “but in Norway they recruit the best of the best, who they educate with specialist training which sets them up for life – they are a highly respected elite.”
In the UK, there is widespread allergy to “third force elements” and militias across the political and administrative classes. Maybe it’s the legacy of the Black and Tans, the reservist militias in Ireland’s troubles in the runup to independence in 1921, and the “B” Special militarised police reservists in the more recent Northern Ireland troubles, but in Britain we don’t have corps of gendarmerie, Carabinieri, or Guardia Civil. Soldiers on the streets doesn’t go down well with the libertarian conservativism of Boris Johnson and his supporters.
We are not talking militias here, but we are talking about the military contribution to civil contingency and resilience duties and operations in emergencies. The new contingency command about to be rebranded and launched this week is a further step down the road. It is needed.
The just in time, just enough approach to civil contingency looks like falling short. The whole operation of supporting forces working through Local Resilience Forums is about to be ramped up – with every likelihood that nearly a quarter of all service personnel, between 25,000 and 35,000 will be needed to help if the emergency drags on with recurrent waves of the virus into next year.
The military, as General Mike Jackson proved in the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001, and General Nick Parker showed in the Olympics, can provide clear command, decision-making and communication with the public, which much of the civil administration has failed to do. Ministries seem barely to know how to communicate, let alone act together. For instance, volunteer agencies and NGO charities have to answer to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport—who seemed last week at one disgruntled meeting to be more focused on safety precautions for its own homeworking staff and how to guarantee charity fundraising, rather than what the charities’ volunteers can actually do for the emergency.
The new Civil Contingency command has to be ready for the big surge of coronavirus now coming up. It will be a long time before it won’t be needed and can stand down from duty. It should lead to the birth of a dedicated national rescue and support service, which shouldn’t be military or police per se. It will be there to coordinate with police, military and the main “first responders” and be able to mobilise volunteers and its own reserve personnel.
And it will be needed. The Covid-19 pestilence is not a one off.