During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and with the NHS in crisis, Su Chantry, occupational health nurse at Formula One team Williams Grand Prix Engineering, returned to hospital nursing at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Now back full time at Williams, she reflects on the OH challenges of keeping this year’s racing season going.
As I wrote back in April, when the NHS put out the call for clinical staff and retired nurses to assist the service in its time of need, like many of my colleagues in OH, I felt I had to do my bit. I was fast-tracked back into the NHS and redeployed on to the wards at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
About the author
Su Chantry BSc Hons SCPHN (OH) Dip HE RGN is a Queen’s Nurse and specialist practitioner in occupational healthE
But as cases reduced over the summer and the lockdown was eased, I was able to reduce my hours at the John Radcliffe and spend more time in the “day job”. After a gradual transition during May and June, when I had feet in both camps, I was eventually able to return full time to Williams.
So, how has it been? My primary role at Williams has been risk assessment and Covid antigen testing; it was all initially about supporting the managers at Williams F1 by advising, guiding and setting up the processes for the safe return of production staff and then the race team, who eventually came back to the factory in June.
We brought a few of the production staff back first so they could make face shields for the rest of the team. It was a busy time, having to produce guidelines and protocols for a safe return to the factory. Then, when the race team returned in June, and working through the FIA (the governing body for world motor sport) guidelines, we worked to ensure they could travel safely. This included setting up a dedicated Covid-19 testing programme for employees.
Managing Covid-19 safety in a sport that involves a 100-strong team moving from country to country, while a team of nearly 1,000 – including both F1 and Formula-E – is working in the factory, is hugely complex, to put it mildly. We have also set up a working from home safely document to support the many technical staff that have not yet returned to work in the offices,
For example, our race team can’t travel until they have confirmed negative status. We have therefore set up a testing programme to provide rapid results. We have to ensure they also have all the right PPE to meet the FIA standards. We have to make sure the travel arrangements enable them to get to and from the race sites safely.
Once at the track, race team members have to be tested every five days – originally it was every three days – and we have put protocols in place to do that. There are protocols to ensure specialist groups work within their own bubbles.
The media teams, too, have to stay in their own bubble and not mix with the other team media personnel. Then, of course, the drivers have to be in their own individual bubbles. But they also need to be able to speak with the engineers and get in and out of the car during practice.
So it was all about set up protocols to cover the various “what ifs”, such as one of the team becoming unwell and having to isolate. There was, and still is, a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work that went on and complex logistical work to manage.
Alongside all that, we had to implement and embed the UK government’s Covid-19 guidelines for the factory. This included supporting staff with health risks, finding ways to enable two-metre distancing, working out how many of our staff we actually needed in the factory and how many could work from home, developing a system for the canteen to be safely open, and many other things.
The race calendar is incredibly challenging and it has been a credit to everybody at Williams and in the sport as a whole that we were able to make it happen. From what I understand from the travelling team, it’s been a bit odd not having the fans there this year, but they just get in the garage and crack on!
Guarding against complacency
As long as Covid-19 is still a risk that can cause significant health problems, it’s got to stay on our radar and we of course have to guard against complacency. Covid-19 requires us to act in quite a non-natural way; we’re all social, we want to get together and talk about our racing. We have noticed a subtle rise in self and manager referrals relating to mental health. To that end, OH has developed a risk assessment tool based on an Institution of Occupational Safety and Health model, which we are implementing along with some additional mental health awareness training .
But I am proud that the processes have been laid down so well that people have felt safe returning to work at Williams. The situation has huge ramifications – financial and logistical – but I feel we’ve managed things well; it is not causing major issues for us. Of course, we are not out of the woods yet in terms of Covid-19. In fact, with cases surging again during the autumn, I have been put back on NHS standby!
Finally, it goes without saying, I’ve had great support right from the very top. The senior leadership team has prioritised the safety of all our staff – from the cleaners in the factory through to the racing team. I also want to take this opportunity to highlight the support from my OH peers, as I have learnt and shared a lot from OH colleagues working in Covid-related work. I’ve missed my face-to-face clinical supervision, but have valued the remote and virtual support that has emerged instead.
I think the pandemic has made us all think more about our work-life balance. Do we really all need to spend so much time in the office? There are good reasons for coming in – there is a mental health risk from missing out on human contact – but it’s good to find a balance. Being forced to think about that has actually been quite refreshing.
“My journey back into the NHS during Covid-19”, Occupational Health & Wellbeing, April 2020, https://www.personneltoday.com/?p=252216