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Testing time: Dispatch #2 by Paul Phillips

11 Jan 2022 | Written by By Paul Phillips

Testing Times: Dispatch #2 from the Covid frontline where a former soldier, long-haul cabin crew members and an actor from Indiana Jones try to reach the Holy Grail of a smooth-running PCR testing site

After the popularity of his first report for us, Paul Phillips returns to illuminate the realities of working on the Covid frontline. Enjoy Paul’s latest dispatch on the most interesting people he’s met in recent weeks, all of whom bring their unique experiences to bear to make sure all goes to plan at a Covid-19 testing site. 


At any one time roughly two-thirds of actors are ‘resting’ – which really means they are doing anything but acting, in the stage and screen sense, to try to earn a living.

A few years ago a call centre set up in Salford was entirely staffed by ‘resting’ actors. Their contracts allowed them to leave at a moment’s notice if an audition came up.

For most actors it’s hospitality or retail that traditionally provide the respite from their chosen profession. It’s fair bet that any conversation with them will lead to the assertion “I’m only doing this until…”

That’s a statement widely echoed on a Covid-19 Mobile Testing Unit (MTU). These teams facilitate PCR tests at sites around the country. They are staffed by people from all sorts of backgrounds and professions.

A fair chunk lost their jobs when pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and shops hit the wall during lockdown. It makes one wonder how the resting actors managed.

One or two have turned up on a MTU team. Michael* says he’s had parts in Indiana Jones and Game of Thrones. His job is to be the team’s security guard. He plays it rather well.

Sally* and Thomas* were long haul cabin crew for an international airline. You can tell, to be honest. They have a certain way of directing people who need a PCR test to various parts of a testing site. They don’t serve quite so many hot flannels or drinks though.

Graham* worked in the oil industry until international travel ground to a halt, Steve* ran a corporate training business until that, too, fell victim to the Covid lockdown restrictions.

Also working on most MTU teams are people of retirement age. Some have chosen to do the work to top up their pension; others declare that they want to ‘make a contribution’, although the money is handy.

They are all supposed to be paid the so-called living wage, which is £11.05 an hour in London and £9.90 for the rest of the UK. The figures vary a bit around the country depending on whether the agency, which employs the MTU workers, decides to adhere to their legal obligation to provide holiday pay.

The teams work on a four days on, four days off rota and will take home about £850 a month, depending on their tax status. Some people rely on this figure as their sole income. It raises the question about what sort of ‘living’ the living wage provides.

So, we have teams made up of all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. They may have been managers; they nearly all bring a pile of experience with them.

Here we have a challenge. How do you manage such an eclectic group of people whose only connection is that they have a chosen to do a job created by a pandemic?

The MTU teams are managed by a regional hub. In at least one area the hub is run by people with military experience. They bring the discipline of their service careers to the job.

A hub may be regarded as the ‘HQ’ with a ‘commanding officer’ in charge. There will be ‘staff officers’ beneath the CO who pass orders to the ‘sergeants’ – the people who manage the mobile testing teams.

Now, that’s well and good. The whole Test and Trace operation is a mammoth logistical challenge and it needs a coherent system to make it work.

But how does military discipline work for the teams cobbled together during a crisis?

There are, of course, many different ways of leading. Perhaps one of the most powerful is to recognise the strengths (and weaknesses) of team you are leading.

It could be that you accept that David* – a retired senior manager for a huge company – doesn’t need micro-managing to carry out his role on the MTU team.

Of course, you have responsibility if something goes wrong, so it’s probably best to be alert. But you take a step back and let the team get on with their jobs while keeping an eye on things just in case

And then there was Darren*.

We’ll come to him in a minute. Let’s first look at what the job of an MTU operative involves.

The team arrives on a site half an hour before it opens. The manager has driven the mobile testing unit van from the regional hub and it carries all the kit needed for a day’s PCR testing.

The first task is to assemble an awning with its metal poles and tarpaulin covers so walk-in tests can be carried out. It’s a bit like putting up a gazebo in the garden.

The manager holds a briefing for the team just before opening time to remind the operatives to put on PPE (a mask and latex gloves) and passes on any interesting news about changes in ‘standing operative procedures,’ which may have emanated from the regional hub. Very keen on their SOPs they are, too.

The operatives then get to work. By opening time there is likely to be a steady stream of cars arriving on the site. There’s a check to confirm that people have an appointment for a PCR test. There’s an explanation of what the test involves, sometimes involving a demonstrator showing the testing kit (a swab and a collecting tube, basically). The ex-airline cabin crew are particularly good at this bit.

The ‘customers’ are then parked to carry out their tests. When they’re done the tests are checked and digitally scanned (the ‘trace’ part of Test and Trace) before being dropped into a collection box.

All clear? It’s not hugely demanding for the operatives who carry out so many tests these days that the whole process is engrained.

And then there was Darren*.

He’d not long left the army and was standing in for a manager who had adopted a ‘keep an eye on things’ way of leading.

Darren was different. From the very moment that the team started to put up the awning he decreed that every step the team took needed to be supervised. He told us in short, sharp sentences how to erect the awning. And woe betide any ‘orrible little man who didn’t do precisely what he was told.

His team briefing was a little different, too. The team was told exactly what it would be doing at any given moment throughout the day and how to do it.

He ended the briefing with an obviously rhetorical “any questions?”

The team were taking a keen interest in the ground and occasionally stealing glances at each other to check whose eyebrows were raised the highest.

Our former senior manager at a multi-national corporation then raised his hand.

“Yes?” said a clearly startled Darren.

“Do we need to raise our hand to go to the toilet?”

If a pin had been dropped at this point it would have made a mighty clang.

Darren turned sharply and headed for the sanctuary of the van.

You can imagine how this all set the tone for the working day.

Darren had succeeded in moulding the team into a coherent unit. Everyone agreed he was a ‘jumped-up idiot.’

To be fair it wasn’t entirely Darren’s fault. He was drilled to lead highly trained soldiers in combat. Orders are followed, never questioned. If your job is to kill an enemy it’s best to put arguments to one side.

However, our MTU team wasn’t deployed that day to kill any of the people who were taking a PCR test so maybe Darren’s approach could have been toned down a little.

The team hasn’t worked with Darren since. He’s left the Test and Trace operation.

Presumably something else came up.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved, but they are all true stories from the Covid frontline…


Did you enjoy Paul’s article? Have you had some experiences volunteering to work on the Covid frontline? Share your comments below! 

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