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Behind the scenes: the hidden team supporting COVID-19 vaccine trials in Wessex

Mark Maffey and Geoff Lewis

An interview with Mark Maffey, Senior Estates Architect & Project Manager, and Geoff Lewis, Senior Programme Manager, from Solent NHS Trust Estates & Facilities.

With the focus on vaccines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that health and care professionals were the only people contributing towards a successful vaccinations programme. In this interview, we caught up with Mark Maffey and Geoff Lewis, part of Solent NHS Estates, to find out how pivotal their roles have been in the success of our vaccine trials and centres.

“At the start of lockdown in March, we expected to be surplus to requirement really,” says Mark, Senior Estates Architect & Project Manager at Solent NHS & Facilities. “It wasn’t obvious to either of us how we’d be of any real help as this was an emergency medical situation.”

Geoff and Mark’s initial uncertainty about their roles during the pandemic was short-lived. It wasn’t long before they realised they were a vital cog that helped keep the NHS turning during the pandemic. Called upon by University Hospital Southampton to source additional beds to cope with the influx of patients into the hospital, the micro-team of Mark and Geoff began to make a name for themselves. 

Following on from their success of sourcing additional beds and increasing hospital capacity, Mark and Geoff’s reputation preceded them and they were soon in at the deep end with a much larger task on their hands.

COVID-19 vaccine trials had begun in Southampton during April 2020, using the University of Southampton’s sports hall, which was kindly donated free of use. A large open space, it was an ideal location for vaccine trials with plenty of room for teams to move around and for volunteers to socially distance.

But with the start of term rapidly approaching, the team knew it would need to look for an  alternative location for the trials. 

Tasked with finding a new venue, Geoff and Mark became an essential part of the vaccine research efforts.

“We needed to leave the University of Southampton sports hall and find another space to house the vaccine trial programme,” explains Geoff. “It wasn’t a simple lift and shift – all of the furniture and equipment being used by the trials unit had been generously loaned to us by the University.

“Not only were we working hard to find an alternative site, we also needed to source furniture and equipment and repurpose a new space – wherever it may be. It was a daunting task.” 

It’s more than just a job – we’ve all played our part in fighting the pandemic

The Estates team was working to a plan to take over an unused space in Southampton city centre. Conversations were progressing and the large site, with good parking and transport links, was looking like a good fit for the trials.

“The space was ideal,” Geoff adds. “But we couldn’t bring the project in on budget. The rent and rates would have proved too costly and after lengthy conversations with the receivers we simply couldn’t make it work.”

By this point, the team had lost almost a month of progress. Contractors were placed on hold and it was back to the drawing board. By September 2020, there was a danger that the vaccine trials may need to be paused.

Yet again, the University of Southampton stepped in to provide an alternative location and alongside space at the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility, trials were able to continue. 

“It was obvious by now that we had to look at existing NHS sites,” says Geoff. “With so much time lost we couldn’t afford to work from scratch designing reception spaces, organising security and balancing heating and lighting costs. It had to be somewhere that we could slot into to mitigate those aspects.”

It wasn’t until the 17th October that the team got the go-ahead for the new site - a disused canteen and staff space at the Royal South Hants Hospital, a space which presented many challenges. Stripping out kitchen equipment and units, re-working the space and fixing ventilation systems that were no longer used were just the start. 

“It still had its advantages though,” emphasises Mark. “It’s NHS DNA so we knew who we needed to speak to so that we could get things working quickly.” 

Alongside re-working the space, the team worked closely with the clinicians and trial staff to re-work the processes that volunteers in the trial would experience in order for the new space to work. 

“Previously, the volunteers in the trial had moved from station to station to undergo the various processes of the trial – blood samples, health questionnaires, etc.” explains Mark. “But for us to make the new space work effectively, we re-worked the processes so that the participants remained stationary and the various processes would rotate around them.”

We’ve been building the plane while flying it!

The trials re-started in their new home on the 9th November and were a resounding success. And ultimately, Geoff points out, all because of the amazing attitudes of everyone involved.

“It’s completely turned on its head how we would normally work,” he says. “A project like this would usually be phased, one step at a time. For the vaccine trials we’ve had to create a team involving clinicians, contractors, cleaners, caterers, pharmacists, procurement teams and operations staff and have them all working at once. It should have been a recipe for disaster. But, actually, the opposite happened.”

There wasn’t much time for Mark and Geoff to rest after finishing the vaccine trials unit – just a week after completion, they were working on plans for four vaccination centres across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. 

Working alongside Highways England, local health authorities, clinicians and local government, Geoff and Mark are both still taken aback by what they have achieved and how important their roles have been.

“This is a high point for me personally,” reflects Mark. “We’ve worked so well together – it has been a real joy. We’re not clinical, but we carry NHS DNA which means that, like our clinical colleagues, we’re hard-wired to care about what we do and make a positive difference.”

“I was in tears at the completion of the Southampton Vaccine Centre in early January,” admits Geoff. “It’s been a test of all of our characters and has brought out the best in both of us. It’s more than just a job – we’ve all played our part in fighting the pandemic.”

In one final reflection, Geoff and Mark expressed gratitude towards their manager, Mark Young – Head of Estates, for giving them ownership of the projects.

“By giving us complete freedom to make decisions, it’s allowed us to think on our feet and act with agility and flexibility,” says Geoff. 

Mark added; “Making speedy judgements with good foresight in a situation like a pandemic is incredibly hard, but Mark Young’s trust in us to get the job done effectively, has been a key part of our success. We’ve been building the plane while flying it!”