First published in the Mail on Sunday on 19 April 2020.
Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher was on a mission to investigate a Taliban compound near Sangin in Afghanistan in 2008 when he accidentally triggered a booby-trapped grenade.
He and his men were heading back to base under cover of darkness when he stumbled into a four-metre tripwire linked to the explosive.
Instead of running for cover, the Royal Marine threw himself on to the device, dropping down backwards and praying his backpack and body armour would absorb most of the blast – an act of supreme bravery that saved the lives of the three other members of his patrol.
In a final briefing before the Afghanistan mission, Lance Corporal Croucher and his fellow servicemen had been warned against taking unnecessary risks. ‘No heroics, lads, OK?’ were the troop commander’s final words. All that was forgotten in the heat of the moment, as the young Reservist willingly risked his life to save others.
It was an action that not only saved Lance Corporal Croucher’s comrades, but – remarkably – ensured the 24-yearold would survive with just minor injuries. His bravery would later be recognised with the George Cross.
Today, thousands of other selfless men and women are also performing heroics, this time in the mission to save victims of the coronavirus pandemic.
The front line of this new war is in our NHS hospitals where, despite a huge procurement operation, many doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants are still working without adequate personal
protective equipment (PPE). Tragically, several doctors and nurses have already paid the ultimate price.
Among those engaged in the extraordinary operation to save the lives of the public are thousands of retired healthcare workers who responded to an appeal from Health Secretary Matt Hancock to return to work.
Like Lance Corporal Croucher, who had left the Royal Marines for a quieter life after several operational tours but returned to Afghanistan as a Reservist, these doctors and nurses had hung up their boots. Yet, when their country needed them, they answered the call.
This got me thinking: when this crisis is over, could the NHS create its own reserve force?
In the military, some 37,000 volunteer Reserves (and a further 40,000 former Armed Forces personnel who are still liable to be recalled) play a crucial role for the nation, countering security threats and supporting humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. Volunteer Reserves commit themselves to up to 27 days’ training a year. They are paid for their time and they do not need to give up their day jobs, except when they are deployed.
If the health service could draw on a similar force of retired healthcare professionals and volunteers with other valuable skills, it could dramatically ease the pressure during future healthcare emergencies.
The pandemic has underlined just how much people in this country love the NHS and how ready they are to support the service in its hour of need.
Within 48 hours of Mr Hancock’s call, some 500 retired doctors and 4,000 nurses volunteered to go back to work. They are now making a remarkable contribution to the national effort and, when this misery is over, some might be willing to do so again.
In addition to retired medics, more than 750,000 individuals from all walks of life have so far volunteered to help the NHS during the pandemic – three times the Government’s initial target.
These numbers are astonishing. If just a fraction of these volunteers were willing to be mobilised in the event of another healthcare emergency, the NHS might be able to avoid its annual ‘winter
crisis’. It would also be in a better position to swing into action at the first sign of another pandemic.
Pandemics aside, one of the key problems facing the health service is a shortage of staff. This is a global issue. All over the world, healthcare systems desperately need more doctors and nurses. The workforce has simply not expanded rapidly enough to keep pace with ageing populations with complex medical needs.
Across the NHS there are currently more than 100,000 unfilled posts, including 44,000 vacancies for nurses and 9,000 for doctors. This is desperate. No wonder the existing workforce was exhausted, even before this disease hit.
It is obvious that, when this battle is over, there will be no return to business as usual. There will barely be time for staff to draw breath before tackling the huge waiting lists for routine consultations
and planned operations that have built up during this period.
The world has changed. We are now under no illusion about how fast and hard pandemics can hit, and the NHS needs to be prepared to do it all again.
We now know that when the chips are down, thousands of people are willing to roll up their sleeves and help out for no material reward. This is a huge untapped resource and could form the basis of a formal health service reserve.
The crisis has also highlighted the value in one of the very features for which the NHS is most often criticised: the extent to which it remains under Government control. This has enabled the whole system to come together to fight coronavirus.
The mobilisation of the entire NHS for a common cause has been remarkable to behold and is in stark contrast to what is happening in America, where its fragmented privatised system is structurally incapable of pulling together in such a way.
In this country, many lives have been saved by a coalition of the willing. I have no doubt that the next time disaster strikes, many of those who are not NHS ‘regulars’ will be ready to play their part again.