Op Tosca 34 - A Pandemic view
Op TOSCA is one of the longest running missions within the United Nations. Following the establishment of the green line in 1974, the UN is tasked with maintaining the status quo between the north and south of Cyprus.
As part of this mission, there is a deployed medical team. The British medical personnel form a small medical team split between two locations. One team, part of Sector 2 and based at Ledra Palace Hotel, consists of an RMO, Practice Manager and two Medics. Whilst the other team consists of a Practice Nurse and two medics at the UNFICYP HQ within the UN Protected Area to the west of Nicosia. The primary focus is to provide emergency cover for all nationalities deployed within the mission who are based within the two locations, with an extra provision of Primary Healthcare for all British Troops.
Preparations for this operational tour started in January 2021, much earlier than normal, with the Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRX) being conducted whilst in pre-deployment isolation. Once in country, there was a further requirement to isolate for two weeks in line with UN COVID-19 policy. Previous deployments have allowed time with family and friends between MRX and the departure date for an operation. With the need to protect the force, it was a necessity for the troops to remain as one and not return home to their families. This has created an absence of leave that gives the impression that as I write this article in the middle of June, the battle group has been away from their home base and units for a period of time, some around four to five months. Whilst the end of June is officially the halfway point, it already feels as though we should really be nearing the end of our tour. This, combined with the inability to offer R&R due to COVID-19 restrictions, has presented a challenge for most soldiers, and as the medical team, we look to support them in developing their mental and physical resilience.
In addition to the elongated nature of this tour, the battle group have also experienced leaving the United Kingdom as it prepared to leave lockdown whilst the Republic of Cyprus had increased numbers of cases and an introduced strict lockdown regime. This meant that the freedoms the soldiers were looking forward to enjoying has not been possible for the first two months in country, whilst aware of those enjoying lockdown easing back home in the UK.
These unusual circumstances have presented the opportunity to run a small-scale survey for the soldiers’ mental and physical wellbeing, to enable both the medical team and Chain of Command to support the soldiers to the best of our ability during this deployment. This survey has had three main focuses to date:
The effects of the period of isolation in Cyprus.
The effects of Operational Stand Down and Adventure training on soldiers overall wellbeing.
The effects of lockdown phases within the RoC.
Our COVID-19 isolation plan was already well established by the previous medical team. With changes to guidelines, the introduction of vaccinations and the ever-dynamic situation, we have remained fluid throughout and reactive to situations as they arise. On reflection, our redeeming feature was the exercise of ‘actions on symptoms’ really early on in the tour. This has since only been briefly required the once, which was quickly switched off on receiving a negative PCR result.
One of our main challenges has been the management and testing of COVID-19. To travel across the buffer zone between the two separate parts of the island, a COVID-19 PCR test is required. This has seen us providing testing for personalities that we would not normally get a chance to meet. Whilst it has increased our workload significantly, it has also offered this opportunity to get to know more personalities from the UN HQ and as a result, offered us some great tips and tricks of places to visit when restrictions ease.
The soldiers based here within the UN are a wide variety of nationalities, each on varying lengths of tour. With this, we have not only been facing the normal challenge of language barriers but also the communication through PPE and the varying attitudes and resilience to COVID-19 measures. Whilst most soldiers remain extra vigilant, it is easy to see the toll it has taken on others and the human need for socialization and relaxation. As the Medical Team, you can really appreciate that whilst instilling the ‘usual’ COVID-19 measures to promote and protect health; it almost feels as though this is having a conflicting effect on soldier’s health in other ways.
We now stand at the halfway point of Op Tosca 34 and with restrictions slowly easing; we look forward to seizing the opportunities that this deployment can normally offer. Our soldiers have recently started taking part in Adventure Training and are looking forward to a well-deserved break as they approach their Operational Stand Down for five days. Whilst the circumstances have been particularly unusual for this deployment, it has so far, been an exceptional experience and has developed our team in ways we couldn’t have imagined, pre-pandemic.
Sgt (GBR) Ashley THORNTON