F1 boss driven to feed NHS staff after doctor daughter told him they were living on cornflakes

An emotional family Zoom chat in which his doctor daughter revealed that exhausted NHS staff were “living off cornflakes” moved former Formula One chief Ron Dennis CBE to launch the SaluteTheNHS campaign to deliver a million meals to health workers.

Dr Charlotte Hall, who works in intensive care, explained to her family that after gruelling shifts treating Covid-19 patients, health workers were either finding supermarket shelves stripped bare by panic-buyers or were simply too fatigued to make anything nutritious for themselves.

That moment prompted Mr Dennis, who has had a successful decades-long career at the top of McLaren, to create an operation from scratch to deliver healthy, fortifying meals to the nurses and doctors battling on the front line of the pandemic then engulfing hospitals.

Tomorrow, just three months after its launch, the operation is set to meet its ambitious target and deliver its one millionth meal.

The Herculean effort was achieved by an army of 800 volunteers, made up of people recently made redundant, pilots, farm workers and even members of the Royal Family, all packing meals and care parcels to be delivered to wards.

The project started with Mr Dennis, 73, donating £1 million of his own money to pay for logistical equipment such as refrigeration units, forklifts, and packaging lines. 

Next he started calling CEOs and captains of industry to see if they would donate food and goods to the effort.

“What I found was that as I was not asking for anything for myself I could be quite pushy,” Mr Dennis told The Telegraph. “I would say I was pushing against an open door as no one had to have the cause explained to them it really brought the best out of people.”

Among the companies to donate were grocery behemoths such as Tesco and Unilever to London-based catering company Absolute Taste, who designed the meal packages so they would provide NHS staff with nourishment as well as sustenance. 

Alongside food, the campaign also delivered care packages with moisturiser and bath salts to help exhausted NHS workers recuperate.

Members of the public also chipped in, as £743,000 was raised via sites such as JustGiving, with the sum then match-funded by the Dennis family.

Later on, the delivery firm Yodel joined the campaign, delivering to health workers having to self-isolate. Yodel is owned by the Barclay family, proprietors of the Telegraph Media Group, publisher of The Telegraph.

Once the logistics were coming together, Mr Dennis used his Formula One contacts book to get former McLaren engineering chief Simon Roberts to head up the operation from a huge hangar in Bicester, Oxfordshire. 

Mr Dennis said: “It was very co-ordinated and we had morning meetings so it was sort of a military operation. We found it very useful to create a mission so that everything we did we took on the basis that Covid-19 was the enemy. So we became quite military in our approach, but that created the discipline to make it work.”

The hangar had teams of 150 volunteers working in shifts to churn out thousands of meals that were being sent to almost 50 hospitals at the height of distribution.

Earlier this week, the volunteers were joined by the Earl and Countess of Wessex, who donned hi-vis jackets and PPE to pitch in at the assembly line.

“They had a genuine desire to participate” added Mr Dennis. “And it came across to everyone they spoke to. To the volunteers, it was magical for them to experience that.”

Having met its formidable target of delivering a million meals, the SaluteTheNHS operation is due to wind down by mid-July, by which time it will have delivered around 1.1 million packages. 

Mr Dennis said there will be sadness among the hundreds of volunteers, many of whom have made new friends through the thousands of hours they have dedicated together to support NHS workers.

“No one should not look back on this without a sense of pride,” added Mr Dennis. “I was a facilitator but it was the volunteers that really made it all happen.”

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