No one plans for a two-year pandemic

The emergency services are used to working with emergency planners in local authorities but during the pandemic, the work of the NHS emergency planning team was brought into sharp relief as the country reeled from Covid. I talk to the man in charge to find out more.

In the last issue, I reviewed Professor Lucy Easthope’s book, When the Dust Settles. It left quite an impression on me and led me to seek out Stephen Groves, Director of Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response for NHS England. He was speaking at the NHS Confederation expo in Liverpool where we sat down to discuss the reality of planning for a pandemic.

I wondered if he agreed with Jeannie Barr, Interim Chair of the Emergency Planning Society, who said that emergency planning was having a moment. Stephen thought about this and told me that he’d been involved in emergency planning for a long time, but Covid wasn’t his moment, it was Ebola. He had been involved in emergency planning for the 2012 London Olympics, and after that Ebola hit.

“It was the first time we’d really had a significant high consequence, infectious disease. We’ve only got a small number of NHS beds for these types of diseases, and we treated all of them successfully. That was my moment in terms of emergency preparedness.”

Long term planning for pandemics

He tells me that he has been working on pandemic preparedness for many years. He was involved in the response to pandemic flu and the H5N1 events and they went on for months. “We thought at the time that they were extended duration incidents.” And then Covid hit and despite this planning he says, “I didn’t expect to be involved with a response that went on for over two years.”

Stephen trained as a nurse before diverting full time into emergency planning. He has a kind manner that is comforting, and he is open and thoughtful in his responses. He praises his colleagues and understands the pressures on them. “The NHS has pulled together more than we have ever seen. Everybody switched from their day jobs to emergency planning. For me, what was inspiring was to see how everyone wanted to help in a meaningful way. It was all about good patient care and the impact of the pandemic on them.”

A change of name

One of the consequences of the pandemic for Stephen has been extra resources and a reorganisation that will see his team renamed NHS Resilience. Easier to write for sure, but there’s method in this approach, as he explains.  “I thought it was important to give the team a new identity. We’re not just about emergency planning, resilience and response, it’s more about making the NHS more resilient. Whether that’s planning for urgent and emergency care or when we have public events like Glastonbury or the Commonwealth Games.”

He’s gone from six staff pre-Covid to over 40 today. He describes one element of his work where the team looks at the resilience of the NHS supply chain, something that comes up in many other parts of the economy. “If suppliers are unable to continue to provide services to the NHS, we get involved in that too.”

Building a profession

The Royal Society for Public Health offers NHS emergency planners the chance to gain professional qualifications that go beyond the regime of training and exercising for incidents. Stephen says that the award, certificate and level 4 diploma were developed in partnership between Loughborough University and Public Health England (now the UK Health Service Agency).  

There is also a need for senior leaders to have a role in emergency planning. The NHS Core Standards for emergency preparedness, resilience and response guidance sets out that NHS funded services must have Accountable emergency officer (AEO) at board level who is responsible for EPPR in their organisation. While this deals with the leadership of emergency planning, for Stephen, every member of staff has a responsibility for emergency response. The guidance is being updated to reflect the role of the new Integrated Care Boards.

Working with local resilience forums

Stephen is a keen advocate for partnership working, talking about how the local resilience forums operated throughout the pandemic. He recognises the legal duty to cooperate with partners as set out in the Civil Contingencies Act and says that over the last two years, he has built up excellent working relationships. He cites the Ministry of Defence as a great partner as well. He talks with great enthusiasm about the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) and the importance of shared situational awareness. “It is well worth investing time to build these relationships. We need to work together to save lives and reduce harm.”

As we bring our brief conversation to a close and before he dashes off to another meeting, Stephen

pays tribute to the EPPR professionals in the NHS. “They’ve done a sterling job and continue to do so.” He’s a cheerleader for emergency planning and while he acknowledges during our conversation that people might perceive it to be a little dull, the last few years have shown that it is anything but.

The Emergency Planning Society will be bringing together a panel of experts to look in more depth at the challenges of emerging from the Covid pandemic and how emergency planning should respond and evolve in the future.

Professor Lucy Easthope will be talking about her book at the show in a special fireside chat with me before the emergency planning panel. She will also be signing copies of her book.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.