Nigel Jones is no stranger to emergency situations. After nearly 11 years in the Royal Signals, followed by 24 years in the fire service, Jones, from Penperlleni in Monmouthshire, now works as a full-time emergency medical technician with the Welsh ambulance service.
Alongside the day job, his passion for volunteering has seen him join forces with charities such as SSAFA (the armed forces charity), the Fire Fighters Charity and mountain rescue. Two-and-a-half years ago, he began offering his help as an international responder to Re:Act Disaster Response, a charity that deploys military veterans to emergency situations where their hard-earned skills often prove invaluable.
In February 2021, Re:Act sent Jones to Australia for a month as part of a team of six to help provide urgent relief during the bushfire crisis. It meant he returned to the UK just as another large-scale emergency – the Covid-19 pandemic – was beginning to take hold.
“Being in the ambulance service, it was quite full-on,” he says of the early days of the pandemic. “During the first wave, pretty much every patient we took in the ambulance was Covid-related.”
Seeing first-hand the gravity of the situation, Jones didn’t hesitate to offer his assistance to Re:Act on UK soil, too. “I couldn’t sit around not doing anything,” he says of the decision to give up his days off. It meant Jones was involved in several crucial projects in response to the pandemic in Wales, including helping to build Cardiff and Bridgend’s Nightingale hospitals.
“Re:Act have access to incredible ex-military staff who have a wide range of specialist skills, from logistics to communications and transport, so the knowledge and skillset needed is already there,” he says.
The Covid-19 response by Re:Act has been impressive. So far, the charity has helped provide 8,406 Covid response volunteers to emergency situations and has supported around 106,500 vaccinations.
During the first wave of Covid-19, volunteers such as Jones primarily worked to support PPE distribution, as well as helping with emergency food provision, welfare checks for those shielding and even mortuary assistance, as well as helping local authorities. Since then, efforts have shifted to focus on supporting the NHS with hospital and ambulance decontamination, non-clinical tasks, and supporting NHS vaccination and testing sites.
Jones’s latest volunteering role saw him stationed at a pop-up vaccination centre in Hereford. “Going into the Omicron wave, I realised vaccinations were probably the only way out of this,” he says. “So when Re:Act asked if anybody could help, I thought: ‘Yes, absolutely – because if we even get five people vaccinated, that’s five people who aren’t going to suffer.’
“The skills of ex-military personnel are so transferable,” he says. “In the military – and the emergency services too – there’s not a lot that comes across our path that bamboozles us. We can always find a way around things. We learn essential life skills – and crucial people skills – that are invaluable in emergency situations like this.”
Stationed at the vaccination centre in January, Jones helped ensure that as many people as possible were able to receive their Covid-19 booster vaccine in the local area, as well as those who had decided to take up their first or second vaccinations.
“Our role was to facilitate paperwork and take people from one place to another, ensuring they were OK and reassuring them so the nurses could get on and do the vaccinations. The whole team worked seamlessly together,” he says.
“By the end of one day, we’d given about 120 vaccinations, ranging from schoolchildren to pensioners.”
Those having their first vaccinations were welcomed with open arms, he adds. “I actually asked somebody having their first jab: ‘What changed your mind then?’ and he said: ‘Omicron, because it’s more infectious.’ I just said: ‘Well done for coming, it will be really beneficial to you’ – it’s not our job to judge people.”
Jones’s role with the ambulance service means he is a firm supporter of the vaccination rollout. “In this Omicron wave, I’ve only taken one person [with Covid] to hospital in my ambulance in the last two months,” he says. “The hospital we drive into is split into two parts – Covid and non-Covid arrivals – and I can see that overall we’re not taking as many people into the Covid zone. Previously, every single ambulance had a Covid case on it. People are still presenting because they’ve got symptoms, of course, but they’re nowhere near as bad – that is all down to the vaccination. So, from my point of view, the vaccinations work and I encourage people to have them. I think people tend to listen to me because of what I do, perhaps.”
The memory of transporting those seriously ill with the virus will stay with him for a long time, he says. “The gravity of the situation was really visible when you saw unwell people in the back of the ambulance. They were struggling to breathe, looked really ill and had all the signs and symptoms like the cough and a high temperature. Now we’re just not seeing that at all.
“I’m not saying the virus isn’t there – it is, it’s just that because people have been vaccinated, it’s not putting them into hospital as regularly. While I’d never strong-arm people into being vaccinated, I do tell them I’m seeing less people going to hospital because of the vaccinations, which you can’t really argue with.”
Jones, who was vaccinated early in the process, has not caught the Covid-19 virus himself. “It’s unbelievable,” he laughs. “It’s an ongoing joke with my wife and my colleagues now. There are usually two of us working on the ambulance – myself and my colleague – and we always work very closely together and with the people who come on to the ambulance. We were working on the same ambulance when he caught Covid, and – though I was testing regularly – I just never got it. I kept doing lateral flow tests expecting to see two lines and I never did. When I tell people this and explain I was fully vaccinated, I think it helps reassure them that the vaccinations really do work.”
The furore over injections is something of a storm in a teacup to the military veteran, who has been stationed around the world in Kenya, Oman, Cyprus, France and Northern Ireland, for example. “I did just over 10-and-a-half years in the army and every time you go to a different country, you’re told: ‘Go to the medical centre,’ and you get jabbed with all sorts. So the fact it’s a new vaccination didn’t matter to me,” he says.
“I’ve had 41 years now in uniform – with the army, fire and ambulance service and it has given me a sense of perspective. Certain things that people moan about aren’t really that important, I suppose.”
For now, Jones is continuing to lend his support to Re:Act’s Covid-19 efforts and shows no signs of slowing down. “A lot of veterans join Re:Act because they leave the military and are at a low ebb. I think they lose the sense of comradeship, purpose and structure they once had, and I understand that.
“I’m 57 years old now and working full-time, but whether I get to deploy internationally again, I don’t know. Volunteering and helping people is just something I’ve always done and really enjoy – I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”
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