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How working at NHS Test and Trace landed me a role heading my university’s COVID-19 case management team

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How working at NHS Track and Trace landed me a role heading my university’s COVID-19 case management team

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For two days a week, I work as GP practice pharmacist. For another two days, I lecture in pharmacy practice at the University of Reading. And one day every other week, I work in a Boots community pharmacy in Wiltshire; all while having two children aged under four years. A real portfolio career!

But in May 2020, I couldn’t resist adding another string to my bow — I started working as a clinical contact caseworker for NHS Test and Trace. Every day, I hear people criticise it, but I have been there for those who have tested positive. I have spoken with people with the virus, who struggle to talk owing to their shortness of breath and fatigue: the symptoms are serious.

And I’ve worked hard to provide support and obtain close contact details to break the chain of transmission of COVID-19. But the success of such a large system, set up so quickly, is somewhat down to the public too; we need everyone we call to engage and pick up their phones in a timely manner to stop the spread.

The media seemed to report that people didn’t want to talk to Test and Trace, yet I experienced the opposite: when I started calls by saying I’m a pharmacist, I found it difficult to get people off the phone. Each caller had heard how their local pharmacist was going above and beyond during this pandemic.

They had so many questions, and they were very grateful to have been called by a clinician who listened to them and gave them support. I’ve already had good training in this: my background in pharmacy has taught me to empathise and communicate in a way that the public trust my advice. And with each call, pharmacy’s reputation has grown.

At the end of the summer, I prepared for face-to-face teaching at the beginning of a new academic year. However, I wouldn’t return to teaching this year, because on 1 October 2020, I got a call from the university chancellor’s office: they’d seen my work with the national Test and Trace over the past several months, and wanted to chat about how it worked and the training I’d received. A few hours later, they asked if I would head the university’s internal contact tracing programme full time, with the contract to start the next day.

At first, I wondered where I’d find the time! But I needed to do it: I knew the value of the student experience of studying and living on campus, and we needed to keep this going. My wife supported my decision and I rushed around to find extra nursery cover for the children. And luckily, I managed to negotiate a four-day week at the university.

The following month was a whirlwind of meetings with the university’s leadership, Reading Borough Council and local Public Health England, as well as getting to grips with setting up a whole new team — all virtually.

I provided training on contact tracing to a group of 10 very kind staff volunteers (which later grew to 25), and I called this group the COVID case management team (not wanting to confuse it with the national Test and Trace). I produced scripts, standard operating procedures and frequently asked questions for my team to work from.

Within a week of its creation, our team started working four-hour shifts, Monday−Sunday, during which they contacted any student who had tested positive, provided support, obtained close-contact details from them and phoned the close contacts to advise them to self-isolate.

We were lucky to have access to useful information on the students’ records, such as their timetables, the space they had occupied in the lecture theatre, and which societies and sports teams they were a part of. We also had a list of their residence addresses, which allowed us to get food parcels to students who had been advised to isolate.

We went further by setting up seating plans for every single classroom so that, after a positive case was confirmed, we could check the layout and identify any close contacts from face-to-face teaching.

The University of Reading has been able to report low numbers of positive cases (just over 300 cases at the time of writing) and I believe it has been down to this work. These cases generated more than 1,000 close contacts, who were asked to self-isolate. Every single student was assigned a support officer to support them through what could otherwise be a difficult period of self-isolation.

This role has been completely different to my usual day jobs, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, knowing that my work and pharmacy skills have had a positive impact on so many people. This challenging experience has really put me out of my comfort zone, but I’ve also gained useful new skills, not least in project management.

I’m so proud that pharmacy has been a shining light throughout this pandemic. We’ve shown what we’re capable of, often at the expense of our own time. We shouldn’t let others define our profession because, in 2020, we proved our mettle again and again, and in 2021 this will be no different.

Gurinder Singh, lecturer in pharmacy practice, University of Reading; GP practice pharmacist, Swindon; community pharmacist, Wiltshire

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