Bring in the Army – or MACA

Military Aid to the Civil Authorities is the set of situations in which military personnel can be deployed in the UK in support of the civil authorities. Like all large organisations, MoD operates in acronyms and this one is known as MACA. The use of military personnel is carefully prescribed so that it is very much a last resort solution, where normal civil resources are insufficient. Like all good MoD operations, each involvement has its own codename or nickname which provides a convenient shorthand by which to refer to the activity.

Many people will recall military personnel driving Green Goddess fire engines during the Firefighter’s strike in 2003, which went by the name of Operation Fresco. Operation Shaku covered the assistance given following the 2015-16 flood emergency in the North and Operation Pitchpole covered the support following the 2013-14 flooding that affected the Somerset Levels. Many will have had their Covid vaccination provided by military personnel who would have been working as part of Operation Rescript. 

All of these operations were a response to genuine emergency situations where  normal civil capability was insufficient. The Firefighters’ strike required a makeshift solution to an industrial dispute which created a risk to life while fire brigades were unable to respond; the military provided the only feasible, short term, partial solution.

We now have a situation in which the military are apparently going to be  drafted in to support the supply chains in recognition of the shortfall of HGV drivers. Reports suggest that there are about 2,000 uniformed HGV drivers in the army, whose most recent roles will have included driving medium mobility vehicles across difficult terrain in Afghanistan as part of Combat Logistic Patrols – basically fighting supplies through to forward bases. The normal business of trucking supplies around in the UK has long since been contracted out so that the uniformed capability is sized to undertake the front line tasks of heavy logistic vehicle driving.

For clarity, those engaged in MACA activities are subject to military and civil law, so, just because you can drive a tank, you cannot transfer seamlessly to a  Sainsbury’s delivery lorry. You will need to have the necessary HGV licence.  Quite how many uniformed personnel will qualify to fill the estimated shortfall of 100,000 HGV drivers remains to be seen.   

What is unique in this situation is that this is the first use of MACA that I  can recall where a deliberate Government policy has created the emergency. In one sense covering for an industrial dispute might fall into such a category, but, in that case, the Government went into the situation consciously and  understanding the need to provide short term cover. In this case, Government has ignored all warnings of the developing crisis. Brexit has caused us to lose the European drivers who chose to work in the UK and who, to a considerable extent, operated the supply chains that linked us to mainland Europe. It has prevented UK drivers from collecting loads on the mainland and operating the efficient supply networks that had developed over the years. It has introduced delays and red tape into the supply chains where none previously existed, so that drivers sit idle. It has taken deliberate Government policy to get us here.

All this was foreseeable and many of us will be thinking “I told you so”, even if we manage to bite our tongues and not say it. It is downright negligent for a national Government to have steadfastly refused to recognise the reality. Five years ago, if the plan really was to have the ultimate hard Brexit, why not plan for it? We could have been training HGV drivers in that time. Come to that, we could have produced fully trained nurses in that time (another likely shortfall that was identified from the earliest days of Brexit). But we have evidently not done so. The Government has been completely blind sided by the results of its own policies and whipped out the band aid solution of calling out the army at the last minute. And it has not even checked to find out whether the army’s capacity even remotely matches the shortfall.  Can it really be that negligent or is there some cunning plan underpinning this which is yet to be revealed? On the basis of the Government’s performance to date, I doubt it.

In his most recent weekly blog, Professor Chris Grey discusses Brexit’s Slow Puncture. He notes that there is more to come. Import controls have yet to be implemented. I wonder how many vets the army can muster to make good shortfalls in the number of vets available to carry out the necessary checks? What will the next weakest link in the supply chains be? Skilled people are not a resource that can be turned on like a tap; the pool of people with the right qualifications is pretty finite in the short term. We demonstrated this with the Nightingale hospitals, where the infrastructure was put in place with great success but medical staff were already heavily committed in existing facilities.

West Country Voices’ Editor in Chief has previously described the boiled frog syndrome in which the temperature of the water around us is gently increased, so that by the time that we notice the discomfort, it is too late to jump out. If opinion polls are to be believed, so far, the general public has not reacted to the increasing chaos that is actually being caused by our government. We can only wonder how long it will take for the average Conservative voter to notice the incompetence (laced with cronyism and self interest) of Johnson’s hard line Brexit. How long will it take for them to recognise the extent of the damage that is being caused wilfully to our society and economy? 

Editor: This tweet from haulage firm John Shirley Ltd sums it up: