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British Army adopts WhatsApp for formal orders as coronavirus isolation kicks in

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The British Army has made a coronavirus-related tech U-turn after telling soldiers that commands issued over WhatsApp are now legally binding.

In written orders posted to a Ministry of Defence intranet site, an Army unit told its soldiers that from now on, orders delivered over WhatsApp are to be treated just as seriously as written instructions delivered through the usual chain of command.

The move is controversial because only last year, the Army's top sergeant major stated WhatsApp is not an acceptable way to distribute formal military demands.

For years soldiers complained that it wasn't clear if WhatsApp messages were a proper substitute for written orders (or disciplinary measures) delivered by email or hard copy.

The order itself, part of which has been seen by The Register, said:

All personnel are to be contactable at all times via their mobile phone. Orders and Sqn direction will now be passed directly through WhatsApp and all work related information passed across this means is to be considered an order.

Barely a year ago, the army's top enlisted soldier stated that WhatsApp was not to be used for delivering formal orders.

Army Sergeant Major Gavin Paton, the most senior sergeant major of them all, told military social media personality, insurance salesman and dressing gown model Alfie Usher in a video interview: "You can't tell people off over WhatsApp; it just doesn't work… If you want to give orders or direction, WhatsApp is not the place to do that."

Usher, an ex-soldier who posted a screenshot of the order on his Forces Compare insurance website, today told El Reg: "It has always been Army policy to not give orders via any instant messenger services. Now we're living in different times. This new direction seems to be a direct reaction to dealing with coronavirus, having soldiers spread thin across the country but still keeping those in self-isolation in the loop."

The Register verified from the full screenshot (not published) that the WhatsApp order was posted on the internal Defence Gateway intranet.

Use of remote comms tech has soared over the past few days as Britain goes into self-imposed lockdown following government advice to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This has had an impact on those platforms as demand jumps through the roof thanks to home working - and some services, such as Microsoft's Teams, evidently weren't prepared for the leap in traffic.

We were unable to contact the Ministry of Defence for comment, perhaps because its press office are all working from home and one unlucky staffer currently has the red-hot office mobile phone. Sadly we don't have their number to send them a WhatsApp message. ®

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