From spearheading 2003 Gulf war assault on Basra to command of Britain’s 2020 Covid response

Former Royal Marine Gen Gordon Messenger has been asked to oversee new targeted testing strategy

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: Head of operations for the community testing programme, General Sir Gordon Messenger speaks during a virtual Covid-19 press conference at Downing Street on November 30, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Alberto Pezzali - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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Sir Gordon Messenger was meant to be putting his feet up and enjoying retirement.

But the former general, who led Britain’s 2003 assault on Iraq’s Al Faw peninsula, now finds himself waging a battle against coronavirus.

The UK government on Monday put the Royal Marine front and centre of its pandemic response after he appeared at a press conference alongside Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Gen Messenger, 58, head of operations for community testing, said the new strategy was to replace mass testing with a precision approach that targets specific sections of the population.

With 99 per cent of the country set to enter the top two tiers of coronavirus restrictions from Wednesday, the highly decorated officer has a major task ahead of him.

Who is General Gordon Messenger?

Prior to his retirement in 2019, Gen Messenger was second-in-charge of the British Armed Forces, serving as Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff.

The role capped a distinguished military career that saw him command a unit of elite soldiers during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

There, he led a battalion of Royal Marines during the initial assault at Al Faw, near the city of Basra. The aim was to capture oil and gas platforms intact before they could be sabotaged by the Iraqi military.

He also served with British forces in Kosovo in 2000 and completed a tour of Afghanistan.

After a sabbatical in Geneva, he joined the Joint Force Headquarters as Chief of Staff in 2004, when he co-ordinated Britain’s humanitarian effort after the tsunami and the fallout from the Lebanon War in 2006.

What are his plans for coronavirus testing?

Gen Messenger said on Monday he wanted to move away from mass testing in favour of community testing.

He said a mass testing pilot carried out in Liverpool could not be replicated nationwide given the resources required.

“I think this is about community testing. It's about tailoring to the needs… of the local area, and that might be geographically specific or it might be ethnic community specific,” he said.

Will the British Army be drafted in for testing?

Gen Messenger said the military would support local operations but would not be the primary response agency.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 11: Brigadier Gordon Messenger after he received the Distinguished Service Order on December 11, 2009 in London England.  (Photo by Lewis Whyld/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Gordon Messenger had a distinguished military career before joining the government's coronavirus response. Getty Images

He said: "I have absolutely no doubt that the military will continue to play a really important part in the community testing programme but the baseline assumption in terms of workforce generation is that will be delivered locally with considerable support from the centre.

"And from what I've seen of a number of local communities, there's great ingenuity already under way in delivering that workforce. They're accessing the volunteer force, they're working very innovatively with the private sector and yes, of course, they've got good liaison with local leadership in the military.”

Who is eligible for rapid tests?

Mr Hancock said on Monday there would be extra funding for local authorities to carry out rapid testing “up to a figure of £14 ($18) per test”.

"That's quite significant extra funding that's available across the UK for the councils that want to make this work on the model of Liverpool," he said.

Mass testing is supposed to be available to areas which fall under the ‘very high alert’ restrictions of Tier 3.

However, Gen Messenger said he did not yet know how many of the 23 million people heading into Tier 3 after lockdown ends on Wednesday would be able to access the regime because “planning is still very much under way”.

He said the scheme would grow in capacity into January and beyond.