As memories of the Covid pandemic begin to fade the collective experience of that time has yet to be definitively written. Yet for some that time of national and international crisis will remain with them for years and no doubt will inform how the UK and its partners approach a similar crisis should it occur again.
One such person is Major Angela Laycock. Angela is an officer with the Corps of Royal Engineers and a civil engineer by trade. At the start of the pandemic, before the true scale of the crisis revealed itself, Angela looked at the efforts in China to develop and build fresh hospital capacity with a keen professional eye.
"The main challenge was the sheer scale of the project, which at first seemed overwhelming. We didn't really know where to start, as hospital planning normally takes years, with many experts involved. Breaking it down into bite-size sections really helped, as we focused on power, water, ventilation, logistics, transportation and bed-space layout." Major Angela Laycock, Corps of Royal Engineers
Little did she know that in a matter of a few weeks she and her team from 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group would be planning and building what came to be known as a ‘Nightingale Hospital’ in the Birmingham NEC in just 18 days!
Military infrastructure engineers support the UK in resilience tasks such as flood events and other major incidents. The support can be either in the form of providing technical advice or identifying where military engineers could fill capability gaps. In the case of the Nightingale Hospitals, it was both technical support and supplying ‘pinch-point’ tradespersons.
Initially Angela deployed with one of her Clerk of Works (Mechanical) to the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham to support the NHS Regional Director in assessing the site for suitability to be converted into a hospital.
Using the knowledge gained from the military involvement in the ExCel centre, she was able to come up with a checklist of requirements that her team could assess in a detailed site visit with the NEC staff and NHS work strand leads. This collaborative and face-to-face way of working allowed the team to conduct a gap analysis to see whether there were any major constraints and what long-lead items needed to be ordered quickly.
Military engineers are used to breaking down complex problems into smaller tasks and using the team effectively to gather information and analyse the data. This skill-set and capabilities available within the Royal Engineers meant that she was able to offer technical advice in terms of construction, and a draughtsman in her team who used his AutoCAD skills to draw up the concept designs with the NHS over the first weekend.
All this directed effort and skills-to-task based activity helped to save time, as the NHS would have otherwise needed to have waited for the designer and contractors to have been appointed to get this done.
"I met some amazing people from both the NHS and contractors who we worked with, and I felt that the Covid patients in the Midlands would have been in safe hands." Major Angela Laycock, Corps of Royal Engineers
With the design done within a day of the contractors being appointed, the build began and Angela’s role changed to that of a client representative supporting the NHS and contractors with advice, planning assistance and identification of issues both on site and across other Nightingale hospital builds.
Even with her military training at the start of the project Angela was not sure where to start. She said: "The main challenge was the sheer scale of the project, which at first seemed overwhelming. We didn't really know where to start, as hospital planning normally takes years, with many experts involved."
"Breaking it down into bite-size sections really helped, as we focused on power, water, ventilation, logistics, transportation and bed-space layout."
"My main takeaways from the project were that people can really work well together in a crisis - they are focussed on the mission to get the job done."
Angela describes the project as the ‘highlight’ of her career with the Army and the Engineers despite only being a few weeks long: "I met some amazing people from both the NHS and contractors who we worked with, and I felt that the Covid patients in the Midlands would have been in safe hands."
Since that tumultuous time Angela is now Staff Officer in the Technical Assurance Cell at Army HQ in the Basing and Infrastructure Directorate where she provides technical expertise as a Professionally Qualified Civil Engineer on a range of subjects.
"This year I am still riding for the Army Cycling Road Race Team and I will be competing in both civilian and military races." Major Angela Laycock, Corps of Royal Engineers
Commenting on her varied role within the Directorate Angela said: "One day I will be looking at our Counter Terrorism Measures that we apply to buildings to protect them from terrorist attacks, to being the Army stakeholder on contracts such as the future Defence Soft Facilities Management contract."
"Every day is different, and I enjoy the variety and being the point of contact for technical infrastructure matters. I still use some of my knowledge and experience from previous jobs looking at Critical National Infrastructure and blast and ballistic protection in my previous job as Officer Commanding the Force Protection Engineering Team."
The commitment that service personnel make when they join up is exceptional. Individual talent complemented by teamwork is at the core of everything, but it is not all hard work all the time and Angela enjoys some of the sporting activities that the Army has to offer.
So when she’s not working out some incredibly difficult problem she hurtling along the highways and by-ways as part of the Army Cycling Team: "This year I am still riding for the Army Cycling Road Race Team and I will be competing in both civilian and military races."
"I’ve retired from racing mountain bikes but I’m now the Secretary of the Royal Engineers Cycling and Triathlon Club so I’m focussing on getting more Sappers out riding and moving up to the Corps and Army teams across disciplines."
So, when you are next in your car and stuck behind a peloton of cyclists just remember there might be someone in there who may have designed and built a hospital – now that’s not too shabby, is it?