15th May 2020

The higher education sector is known for its collaborative focus and community-minded spirit.  We know there are examples of individuals and teams across the sector pitching in to help in this time of crisis.  We recently took some precious time out with Dani Sweeney, SUPC’s STEMed Category Manager, who has been seconded since lockdown to assist with the NHS PPE Procurement Scheme. The scheme involves procurement professionals from across the public sector assisting with the sourcing of PPE for our frontline healthcare workers. At SUPC we’re so proud of Dani’s involvement and her level of commitment to this project, we thought we’d share the inside track with you.

Dani, tell us how you got involved with the NHS PPE procurement scheme?

In the first few days of lockdown, LUPC put out a sector-wide call asking procurement professionals to volunteer their time to support the NHS in getting PPE to the frontline. My labs agreements were starting to quieten down because of the institutions’ labs closing as part of lockdown. I realised I was in a prime position to support the project and had the necessary knowledge of the supply markets. I also have a number of close family members working at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, so there was the added personal motivation to do something meaningful.

Who was organising the effort for the NHS?

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) with the help of the Cabinet Office is coordinating this entire project, and that is who we report to. We do have some communication with the NHS in terms of requirements and clarification on specifications, but fundamentally, the MOD has the appropriate skill set to coordinate in these types of situations.  This work is just part of the coordinated activity being undertaken across the sector.

How many other public sectors buyers have signed up?

The majority of ‘caseworkers’ are from various government departments, including CCS. However, there are also procurement colleagues from CPC, NWUPC, University of East London, Tate, UKSBS, and TUCO. It’s great that so many colleagues were able to get involved and lend some much-needed support to get this project running and get the PPE where it needs to be.

How is this work helping those working in the NHS?

Initially, suppliers of essential PPE are directed to a portal to register their organisation and provide details of what they can offer. This crucially also gives potential suppliers the specification and standards to which the PPE must adhere.  Once completed the supplier details are then made available on a ‘Caseworker Portal’, for us to select and work through.

Our work in the Opportunities Team involves clarifying what the supplier can provide: quantities, cost, lead-times, etc. We ensure that they have all the required product certification in place. Once we’ve made these clarifications and are satisfied with them, we pass the details over to our ‘Technical Assurance’ team to review. Once they give the ‘technical thumbs up’ it then passes along the chain. This feeds back into the Department of Health and Social Care who will create contracts and place orders with those suppliers.  It’s no help to anyone if sub-standard PPE is delivered to hospitals, so this process helps us make sure the PPE will stand up to requirements.

What are the success rates like for securing PPE at the right standard and specification?

There are some really fantastic success stories and occasionally Matt Hancock drops them into the 5 pm briefing.  For us, these can be overshadowed by the many well-intentioned, but inappropriate, offers or fraudsters, out there. For every solid lead, I have probably dealt with 8-10 that were either not able to supply the entire package, or did not have materials in line with the specifications and standards required.

The minimum amount of time spent interacting with each supplier, in order to get to a position where we can possibly progress, is about an hour. It was a mammoth task.  To put it into perspective, at our peak, we had 8000+ suppliers to contact and this was increasing at a rate of 150+ per day.

That sounds challenging  – how are you coping?

It is incredibly challenging; with an ever-expanding team, getting processes up and running quickly, whilst changing mid-flight and on-boarding my own team remotely and that’s before I even start on the actual ‘day job’!

There are days when energy is lacking and patience or tolerance have all but gone out the window, but it’s situations like this that make me recognise just how important this work is and just how determined and tenacious I can be.

Fortunately, I recently attended a personal resilience course and the timing of this was certainly fortuitous! This job is in no way comparable to the hard work being undertaken by our frontline workers, but has been and continues to be a massive challenge. I try keeping the end goal in mind and that certainly helps me to stay motivated!

Is it all-consuming or are you able to focus on any of your normal ‘day-to-day’ activities?

It is all-consuming; days are very long and we’ve worked evenings, weekends and bank holidays.  I am still keeping an eye on my normal activities and supporting SUPC members, as they need it. I’m still able to respond to emails and I’m still hosting the SUPC STEMed ‘coffee morning’ sessions, which has really helped keep me sane! Fortunately, in some respects it goes hand-in-hand – the Lab requirements may have slowed at an institution-level but the focus shifted over to the NHS.

What are your ‘takeaways’ from this time and have you learned anything you can share with your colleagues?

I am really proud to be working on this project, and I am extremely grateful for all the support I have had from everyone at SUPC who’s enabled me to do this, it really is a massive team effort.

My takeaways from this….

  1. Fundamentally, it is a massive market analysis exercise. I now have a far better idea of how the PPE market is structured, which is something I know will be very useful in any new projects I undertake for the sector.
  2. Don’t be afraid to shake things up if something doesn’t work quite right – just because that’s ‘how we do things’ doesn’t mean it’s right for every scenario. This project has been a melting pot of so many different organisational cultures that we have had to come to a better way of working, which often involved a significant amount of ‘mindset adjusting’.  One of our sister divisions, SUMS Consulting, conducted some interesting research on how culture and people strategies at universities are adapting in response to this crisis.
  3. Time out is key – wanting to do a good job to support the NHS and being stuck at home does not mean sitting in front of the screen 24 hours a day.  That will play havoc with your mental health. I’m still enjoying my early morning runs, Zoom catch-ups with my family and downtime with my partner.

Is there an end in sight? Do you know how long you’ll be supporting the NHS?

Currently, there is no definite end, partly because the virus still has a long way to go, but I believe that the Opportunities Team can really only go so far before we start moving caseloads to a more ‘business as usual’ scenario, which will ultimately hand control back to the NHS.

Ideally, I would like to be back full time in the SUPC fold by the end of June…..I’ve got a gases tender to progress!

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