Lorna Ward was face painting with her daughter during lockdown when a general called asking her to support the Army’s contribution to the Covid pandemic.
To mark Reserves Day (23 June) she recounts her year “brutally thrust into the limelight” supporting frontline workers during the pandemic… with the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, wildfires, and the G7 summit thrown in for good measure.
In the thick of it: a year in the life of an Army Reservist/Communicator on Covid Lorna Ward (Lieutenant Colonel)
As the UK first went into lockdown, my husband stepped up to build a proper network across our local community. After rallying some neighbours, we set up a helpline, recruited volunteers to run errands, provide support, share their IT, teaching, medical, counselling skills for the benefit of their neighbours.
The task mushroomed to a near full-time job, so it was almost with a sigh of relief that I found some of the contracts I was working on, many involving overseas travel, were slowing down in the midst of the Coronavirus disruption. I was trying to establish just how much of my work I was going to be able to do remotely while running the community network – albeit with some trepidation about the associated lack of income and a 3-year-old to entertain without childcare – when my phone rang. It was Major General Neil Sexton, the head of Army Engagement and Communications. It was a good thing this was a good old-fashioned telephone call and preceded the boom in zoom video calls as my face was covered in paint courtesy of a particularly arty session with my mini-me. “What are you doing at the moment?” (right now I was face and finger painting but I didn’t think that was what he wanted to hear). Would I consider stepping up as the communications adviser to the Commander of Operation Rescript and the spokesperson for the operation? Op Rescript – Defence’s contribution to the government’s battle against the Coronavirus. Gulp. When would they need me? Tomorrow. Gulp again. I said I could probably do 3 months and then I would have to see.
15 months later, two mobilisations, some serious sleep-deprivation, a fascinating job that has mushroomed beyond recognition and not a single Netflix binge later, I am finally getting some leave and being demobilised back into civilian life.
I have spent that time working out of the headquarters of the Standing Joint Command (UK) in Aldershot as adviser to the Standing Joint Commander, Lieutenant General Tyrone Urch and, as of February 2020, the commander of the military operation against COVID-19. The headquarters routinely covers four main areas:
· supporting the government on anti-terrorism
· environmental disasters
· EOD and Counter-IED
· industrial action
But it had never operated on anything like this scale and it was brutally thrust into the limelight. The headquarters was also responsible for the military elements of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, as well as Defence’s contribution to the smooth running of the G7 in Cornwall so it has been a busy few months.
Headquarters Standing Joint Command (SJC) grew from around 25 people to 250 in the space of just a few days so the first few weeks consisted of manically trying to get to know who was who, what the operation was about and how every moving part around the country fitted in; every Local Resilience Forum, Joint Military Command, NHS hub, the complex politics across all government departments in Whitehall and every civilian contractor and company involved.
SJC had no permanent media and communications capability at all. Neither did Home Command or Regional Command, both of which are also headquartered in the same building in Aldershot. I found out Gen. Urch had a ‘second hat’ – that of Commander Home Command that includes all training and recruiting Army-wide. His deputy in SJC(UK), Major General David Eastman also double-hats as the General Officer Commanding Regional Command, which basically includes everything that has anything to do with the welfare of Army personnel and their families. So a pretty wide remit for a building housing multiple headquarters suddenly tasked with tackling COVID too – and a broad and complex remit that would soon be reflected in my role there too.
In March 2020 and through the early months, a media and comms team of 8 was mobilised like me or called in from full-time Armed Forces or civil service posts and we set about creating a media and comms capability from scratch.
I advised on the reputational risks and opportunities to the military across all Op Rescript activities and deployments and initiated and ran all media facilities involving the Comd and all other senior commanders across the operation. I briefed the Commander and his Command Group daily on the atmospherics, public perceptions, disinformation and risks and opportunities, and red-teamed activities with the Commander. I also worked with all the Ministry of Defence Communications directorate and other government departments on comms to make sure we were coordinated in our messaging and never undermining our colleagues in other departments - a delicate diplomatic exercise in stakeholder engagement and absolutely key as the basis of the MACA (Military Aid to the Civil Authorities) principle is that the military is only stepping in to support another government department at their invitation. Within a few weeks of starting on Op Rescript, I had ‘in support’ pretty much branded on my forehead.
My 3-month tour turned into a 6-month tour and by now, my role had become much wider than first billed. I was working on all other SJC operational planning including EU Transition, Winter Resilience, Royal funerals, G7 planning and wildfires. I also advised on all Home Command communications - advising, briefing and drafting statements and recommendations on issues that included Racism in the Army, Diversity, Recruitment, Training, Leadership and civil-military interface. Throughout, I was also working for Army Engagement and Comms as the spokesperson for the Army on Op Rescript and presenting weekly Op Rescript broadcast news updates (and subsequently wider Army News Updates) for internal and external communications.
I was demobilised after a 6-month tour in October and General Urch asked me to remain on a ‘long elastic’ to assist should they need it as the winter approached… less than a month later I was called back in a few days before the launch of Liverpool mass testing. I flew up to Liverpool with General Urch, then to London for the No.10 press conference to support Brigadier Joe Fossey whose leadership in Liverpool had drawn national attention. Then it was on to Merthyr Tydfil for mass testing and beyond. I was swiftly re-mobilised as the pace of the operation and the demands on the Armed Forces grew further. The festive period was a non-event in our household, with the emergence of the Kent variant, a ministerial announcement about a military role in schools testing and a colossal backlog of hauliers in Kent needing swift testing to be allowed across the Channel into France.
At New Year, I was delighted to hear that I had been awarded the Chief of the General Staff’s Commendation for my first 6 months on Rescript. Despite the relentless pace, unpredictable impact and changes to my civilian work and my family - and the desperate need for a day off - I was thrilled to be in the thick of the battle against Covid and part of what was an amazing team headed up by some of the most inspiring leaders I have met in my time in the Army.
My time at the headquarters was extended again and in the last six months we have been largely focused on more testing in the four corners of the UK, supporting hospitals with Defence medics and the vaccine rollout. Operation Forth Bridge, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, and the G7 conference were also added to our list of operations to juggle. I am finally being demobilised (again!) this month and will start to pick up the pieces of my civilian life and work. It will be a joy to spend time with my now 4-year-old daughter and take some of the home pressure off my husband. I may throw in some Netflix boxsets and a few leisurely afternoons staring gormlessly across the fields at the back of the house too before I launch into the next adventure.