GW4 Technical staff in the fight against COVID-19

April 27, 2020
David Williams

Technical Manager in the Faculty of Engineering and Design, and Technician Commitment Lead at the University of Bath, David Williams, shares how technical staff across the GW4 Alliance are stepping up and working together to help tackle COVID-19 and provide vital supplies to key workers and the front line NHS staff. 

Technicians are often the linchpin in any University department, operating and maintaining facilities and providing valuable expertise, enabling high quality teaching and research. As we find many of our facilities temporarily shut down, many of those in technical roles are unable to carry on as normal or move online as colleagues in other roles can. However, I’m really proud to see fellow technicians across the GW4 network doing whatever they can to contribute towards the efforts to tackling COVID-19. The willingness of our technical teams (not to mention many other colleagues) to sacrifice their time and energy has been really humbling.

Technical staff have been busy continuing to maintain essential equipment and resources like cell lines and animal facilities. Many have also been involved in the COVID-19 testing and research effort directly and by maintaining essential laboratory facilities.

At all four GW4 institutions, technicians have been coordinating the donation of thousands of items of personal protective equipment (PPE) from our laboratories and workshops for use by NHS and council workers. At the University of Bath, we also rounded up reagents from across campus to make hand sanitiser for donation. Similar efforts involving technicians at the University of Bristol produced 1000 litres of hand sanitiser in ten days and was covered by BBC Points West earlier this month.

Technicians at Cardiff University have been involved in providing critical care training for NHS staff. The aim of the training is to prepare practitioners who do not usually work in intensive care settings, to ‘step-in’ if extra resource is required at Intensive Care Units.

Here at Bath, dozens of technicians from across the Faculty of Engineering and Design have been working with academic colleagues to produce much needed PPE. The team have been working in shifts, seven days a week, to produce face and eye protection for local hospitals, GP surgeries and pharmacies. At the time of writing over 30,000 items have been made and donated to front line workers. Technicians have played a key part in this, trialling different methods of manufacture to find the most efficient and practical solutions. By working to the strengths of both academic and technical staff we’ve seen an incredible result and it has been encouraging seeing many positive comments from the end users on social media, including NHS staff at the Royal United Hospitals Bath (RUH). We have been keen to share what we’ve been doing, and technicians, academics and researchers from Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences have also been making face shields using our designs for their local healthcare community. It is fantastic to see this collaborative and open approach benefiting communities across the region.

In Exeter, the local 3D printing community have also been producing components for PPE. Technicians from the University of Exeter have been key in supporting this by preparing machines for loan to the local community and offering remote technical support. Bristol engineering technicians have also been giving their time and expertise by 3D printing components for face shields, part of a national network of 3D printing facilities and individuals working to keep our frontline staff supplied with PPE.

For Universities to use their resources to have such a positive effect on their local community reminds me why I love working in Higher Education. Our aim is ultimately to use education and research to make the world a better place. Technical staff play their own unique role in this, and whilst their contribution has often been overlooked or misunderstood, this is gradually changing. For example, all four GW4 Universities are signatories of the Technician Commitment which aims to ensure visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability for technicians working in higher education and research, across all disciplines.

Through this time of crisis, we have seen society wake up to the huge variety of jobs people do that keep the country running, and a renewed appreciation of people in those roles. My hope is that this will apply to Universities too, and we’ll come to realise more than ever that Universities are a team effort. From IT technicians developing and maintaining technologies so teaching can continue online, to security and hospitality teams keeping us safe and fed on campus, to academic staff adapting to delivering content from home, and countless other roles, we all need to recognise the equal value in what we all bring and what we can achieve when we work together.