24 June 2021

Blog by Mandy Townsend

Mandy Townsend is an Associate Director in the Innovation Agency’s Patient Safety and Care Improvement Team.

Hello, my name is Mandy, and I am a biomedical scientist. In April 2020, a couple of weeks into lockdown, I was redeployed to a national COVID-19 operational supplies team, joining colleagues from NHS England and Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care.

The operational supplies team was building capacity to test for COVID-19 and my background in pathology and experience of innovation adoption and spread supported our work.

Initially we focussed on one of two ‘pillars’, pillar 1 for NHS and Public Health England labs. Pillar 2 for NHS Test and Trace labs was looked after by a separate team.

Collectively and collaboratively we increased molecular testing from around 2,000 tests a day to 100,000 tests and more each day. The aim was to make sure that patients could be tested rapidly on admission to hospital, regularly during a hospital stay, and on discharge.

The role involved working with labs, networks and regions, new testing technology workstreams, existing and new suppliers, the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS Test and Trace, other senior members of NHS England and Improvement teams such as the Pathology Transformation team, devolved administrations, expert scientists, the Chief Scientific Officer’s team and industry associations.

Two key things to bear in mind are:

  1. molecular testing was not widespread in the UK pre-pandemic, mainly being a specialist test and only available in some labs, and
  2. consumables and equipment were in worldwide demand, so that many of our preferred testing platforms had restricted UK allocations.

The first phase was almost exclusively focussed on making sure labs could stand up and continue testing. This involved coaching, facilitating and supporting lab teams to identify different supply sources, mutual aid, and as a last resort divert to another lab. In pillar 1 we hit 30,000 tests a day on 30 April 2020.

Phase two was working with the Cabinet Office commercial team and lab leaders to identify suitable equipment to expand capacity further. The next goal was 100,000 tests a day for Pillar 1.

The capacity planning involved working with colleagues in local, regional and national teams, with everyone pulling together towards a common goal to identify stable sources of supply. We had a plan! We started to support labs to order new equipment and validate and verify their equipment in each lab.

It was an amazing experience and I was privileged to work with many passionate and committed people from across the NHS, Civil Service and beyond.

Twitter: @MT_marshlands

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