COVID-19 – A Year On

IChemE Chief Executive, Jon Prichard, reflects on the last year and how IChemE has responded to the challenges presented by the pandemic.

Today marks the anniversary of the first lockdown in the UK which seems an appropriate time to reflect on how this global crisis affected IChemE and our response to it. As lockdown in the UK first came into force on 23 March 2020, few of us foresaw the enduring impact that would follow and most thought it would only last a matter of weeks; yet 12 months have now passed and the world we live in is a very different place.

As the lockdown measures were announced in a ripple around the world, we took the immediate decision to close all IChemE offices and arranged for staff to work from home. As a result of the 2018 decision to make a long-term investment in our business systems, alongside the positive and determined response from our staff and volunteers, we were able to achieve a rapid and smooth transition to the new normal.

In April, we revisited our plans for 2020, and assumed that physical activity would not be possible in the short term. We therefore adapted to virtual activities wherever possible. Meetings were held via video call; a Coronavirus information hub was added to the website; members group meetings and events were moved to webinars; conferences and award ceremonies were converted to virtual events; and the vast majority of training was delivered online. Even The Chemical Engineer moved to online only, although this was just for two editions before the printing presses were running again.

Recognising that many members were affected personally by the effects of the pandemic, I am thankful that the Chemical Engineers Benevolent Fund has continued to be available to support chemical engineers around the world throughout this time.

As the situation developed, we started to look at the medium term in particular, how we could better support staff with the changes to their new working conditions. This included providing support tailored to individual needs and offering increased flexibility to cater for a range of different home situations. In particular, our duty to ensure physical and mental well-being became an organisational focus.

Many members have done great things in the past twelve months, but I would like to highlight the excellent work carried out by the IChemE COVID-19 Response Team. This dedicated group of volunteers, who reacted immediately to form an expert team, are to be commended for their charitable spirit in their support for the response to the pandemic.

As the full scale of the pandemic became known, IChemE members, including many from the Pharma Special Interest Group and the Biochemical Engineering Special Interest Group, felt that a key part of their professional responsibility was to deploy their skills and expertise for the benefit of society, with many feeling that this had never been more applicable than when tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. The specialist skills held by chemical, biochemical and process engineers meant that IChemE members were ideally placed to make a significant contribution.

Working alongside other partners such as the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering UK Affiliate (ISPE UK), the team set up a number of workstreams in areas where they felt they could offer assistance including diagnostics, vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE) and an international workstream to share learning globally. The initial focus was on hospital services, addressing the shortage of ventilators and sharing advice on augmenting oxygen distribution systems.

From supporting the scale-up of the manufacturing processes necessary to meet the urgent vaccine targets, to investigating methods to decontaminate and reuse PPE, the team’s contribution highlights how chemical engineering touches every part of society.

To date, the IChemE COVID-19 Response Team has provided valued input to the UK government and health organisations highlighting the expertise and experience within IChemE’s membership, with some 10% of the membership focusing specifically on pharmaceutical and biochemical manufacturing. The team has also delivered informational webinars, produced numerous reports and policy papers, contributed to a series of press releases, and written articles in The Chemical Engineer relating to COVID-19. This programme of work has truly helped to demonstrate the contribution that chemical engineering makes to society.

With the vaccine roll-out in full swing in the UK and plans in place to begin lifting the restrictions, (noting that the timescales differ depending on which country you are in), the COVID-19 Response Team are starting to wrap up their activities. The team’s Pathway from Lockdown initiative is looking at preserving and sharing the group’s work with the chemical engineering community, and working on tools to guide the selection of testing regimes and help manage the risk of COVID-19 transmission within various settings, particularly the process industries.

A year on and our UK and Malaysia offices remain closed, with our colleagues in Australia and New Zealand cautiously enjoying more freedom. It has been a year of uncertainty, but I am extremely pleased with how the Institution, both members and staff, have responded to the challenges. We were able to continue supporting the global membership without any significant reduction in services, plus we were still able to introduce new services such as the Knowledge Hub, and to pilot new qualifications processes such as the Individual Case Procedure assessment.

The last year has taught us all to be resilient, flexible, agile and compassionate. The Institution will continue to improve and adapt to the new environment as it evolves, and thereby continue to support members and deliver against our goal of serving society as we head towards our centenary year.

For more information on IChemE’s response to the pandemic, please visit the Coronavirus information hub.

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