Tried and Tested at RAF Halton
RAF Halton’s response to the COVID-19 crisis began in March 2020. Although little was known about the impact of the virus, the threat was obvious from the outset. Recruit Training Squadron (RTS) sees thousands of recruits through its doors each year – living, eating and sleeping in close proximity to one another on a daily basis. Everything about basic training is communal, from buddy-buddy checks and Physical Training (PT) in groups to weapons handling drills. Beyond RTS, the station is generally a hub of activity and is home to approximately 2,100 personnel from all three armed services, civil servants, contractors and civilians.
To maintain RAF Halton’s operational capability, whilst remaining COVID-19 secure, a ‘COVID cell’ was developed. The cell was established by Wg Cdr Ian Hough, who continues to lead it, and Ms Kerry Ruggles, with other members of the Station Management Squadron (SMS). The first measure undertaken by the cell was to ensure station personnel displaying symptoms were isolated for the correct length of time. Station transit accommodation was used for this and maintained by WO Hammond and the Contract Management Team (CMT), providing meals and welfare checks. Another location on station was also set up to accommodate those ‘cohorts’ of recruits who had been in contact with a positive case, but had not tested positive themselves. In each cohort there were around 15 recruits, who were able to work closely together and, due to the smaller numbers, remove the need for social distancing within the cohort. This meant that only a single cohort would be required to isolate, rather than the entire intake, if any of the recruits tested positive.
With one obstacle successfully negotiated and the recognition that any isolation period represented a potential bottleneck in training, Sgt Paul Topping and Cpl Gary Wigglesworth were tasked with creating a remote training facility. In doing so, this would ensure training objectives continued to be met and reserved the need to back flight recruits for only the most serious of COVID cases. A suitable location was found, and divided in half with a green (clean) side and a red (dirty) side. With classrooms and office space set up and arranged to allow for social distancing, audio and visual equipment was installed by Information Systems and Services (ISS) to support remote, two-way, conversation and teaching. As the location contained existing dining areas it meant that meals could be brought from the mess and delivered to isolating recruits, further reducing movement across the station. So far, approximately 100 recruits have been through the remote teaching facility, and it remains on stand-by to receive any more required to isolate.
To further negate the chance of a COVID-19 outbreak, orders for a lateral flow testing facility to be used by Halton personnel were passed onto Wg Cdr Hough and the COVID cell. Hangar 2 was chosen as the best location due to its open space, cleanable surfaces and position outside the security perimeter. Under normal circumstances the hangar is used by Chiltern Gliding Club; however, gliding operations have been stalled due to lockdown. With plans to be used for Day Zero recruits, the hangar also provided enough parking and through-flow to allow for a new intake of up to 120 recruits to turn up within a few hours of each other.
Towards the end of November, Sgt Topping and Cpl Wigglesworth were tasked with building the test facility and within five days of construction it was operational. After a deep-clean by Sodexo contractors, cubicles from the old clothing stores were moved in to create 5 separated testing bays. Screens, built by station workshops, Babcock contractors, were set up to maintain the safety of the testers, whilst PPE and supplies were ordered in. Hazardous waste disposal and cleaning contracts were also set up with Sodexo.
At the beginning of the year, myself and three other Servicemen Awaiting Trade Training (SATTs) were fostered to the COVID cell and were met by a weekend of testing. Having previously used lateral flow testing in Merthyr Tydfil, we were familiar with testing and PPE protocols. Recruits returning from Christmas leave and arriving at Halton were required to have two tests, once upon arrival and another seven days later. The testing team consisted of a mixture of military and civilian volunteer personnel from across the station, with the Station Commander manning reception on one occasion. Once all intakes were back at Halton, testing resumed as normal, with a new intake arriving bi-weekly and a second test conducted a week later.
With the success of this first site, a second, smaller testing facility was planned in the remote teaching building in early January. This was a smaller area with three bays, designed for use by Airmen’s Command Squadron (ACS) and occasional contractors. This facility was self-run and ACS visited Hangar 2 to learn PPE and testing procedures. Replicating the previous site, we sourced more cubicles from the old stores whilst Babcock built more screens.
Amey contractors smoothed out any final creases, ensuring all lights were working and electrical floor sockets were removed.
Future plans involve the continued use of both testing sites, whilst the isolation blocks and remote teaching facility will hopefully be used less with the growing success of testing. Another single bay test site has been planned by the entrance to the station for contractors and individuals, however at the time of writing, building has not yet started on this.
Although we had only been with the COVID cell for a month while we awaited our DE SNCO Cse, we learnt a great deal in that time, and it was a useful insight into the ‘behind-the-scenes’ running of a station. I was surprised how many different groups came together and worked seamlessly alongside each other, from civil servants to contractors to serving personnel. Hopefully the COVID cell will not have to remain operational for very long; however, it is reassuring to see how quickly an issue such as COVID-19 can be reacted to.