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VIDEO – Movianto, the vital link in UK Covid-19 vaccine distribution

“It wasn’t until very few weeks before the first lockdown that we really understood the true impact of what it was we were working with.”

The UK vaccine rollout effort required that vital link between vaccine manufacturers and the NHS, and Movianto is incredibly proud to have played that role. It has been a challenging chapter in our history, but we are proud to say that we rose to that challenge. Over 88,397,980 vaccine doses have been received and stored in our facilities, and the number continues to rise. Our task is not yet completed, and we will continue working tirelessly to combat this pandemic.

We thank our team members and all those involved in the vaccine rollout at Movianto, Public Health England, SCCL Ltd, NHS Scotland, NHS Wales, HSCNI.

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The cool heads and hot hearts in the Covid-19 vaccine supply chain

With more than three-quarters of the UK’s adult population double jabbed and 95,200 lives already saved, according to Public Health England’s latest figures, the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout has been the success story of the pandemic so far.

In recent times, we’ve heard a lot about the start of the vaccine’s journey, with the Vaccine Taskforce and the innovation of the scientists. And we’ve seen it at the end, in the hands of our fabulous NHS, who put it into our arms.

But little has been told of the vital link that joins the two…

But it has been a mammoth task with some enormous challenges…especially as the system had to be created at life-saving speed and a supply chain for vaccines at such ultra-low temperatures had never existed anywhere in the world before work began in the UK.

The cool heads – inside the deep-frozen vaccine supply chain

“We’re the experts in the field. But even we had to take a deep breath at times.”

Managing director, Paul Wilkinson, and his team at Movianto UK – like most of us – have had life turned upside-down by the arrival of the novel coronavirus.

As the firm procured by PHE to be responsible for the central storage of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine stock, and behind a network used to distribute it around the country – and beyond – Paul and his team have been working at full throttle, and in full creative mode, for the last year on the challenge of a generation.

“We’re the experts in the field. Vaccine distribution is what we do day-in, day-out. But even we had to take a deep breath at times,” said Paul.

“Before we began working on it, neither a roll-out plan nor a supply chain for a vaccine that needed to be stored at -75°C, existed. It had never existed, anywhere in the world. We had to start it from scratch.

“Back in August 2020 – even before we knew if any of the vaccines would be viable – we were getting ready for the roll-out. 

“Working with Public Heath England, we were planning for every eventuality, and, believe me, there were many of them to consider.

“At the time, we didn’t know which – if any – of the vaccines would be safe or effective. We didn’t know when they would be arriving. We didn’t know where they would need to be taken and we didn’t know what conditions they would need to be held or transported in.

“The speed of change was not normal and having to make plans with so many movable or unknown parts, means that you’re constantly reviewing and refining things.

“But it’s been a fantastic operation. Everyone in our team has been fully aware of the importance of the job we’ve been doing, and how it just could not fail. They have pulled out the stops at every juncture.

“Public Health England and NHS Supply Chain, who were leading the decision making, were making brave decisions, which have ultimately paid off. And they should be praised and recognised for that.

“Those brave decisions and the early planning put us on the front foot, ahead of almost every other country, especially those in Europe. And that meant we could be at the front of the queue when it came to getting things rolling and sourcing essential equipment that would soon be in short supply, once it was on everyone’s shopping list.”

Movianto were well placed for the Covid-19 vaccine role. The firm is already responsible for the children’s routine vaccinations and large parts of the seasonal flu programme for the NHS in the UK, plus the Crown dependencies (of the Isle of Man, and Jersey and Guernsey) and UK Overseas Territories, such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

Since 2005, the company, which has its UK headquarters in Bedford, has stored, coordinated and distributed all-year-round long-standing vaccines, such as the MMR, polio and diphtheria. And each September to November, it makes sure hospitals and doctors’ surgeries have the annual flu boosters they need to protect their most vulnerable patients.

Although these vaccines need careful handling and special distribution methods, they are much simpler to manage than the first Covid-19 versions available, as they can be stored at standard fridge temperatures.

The routine contract with PHE did prepare the company for its role in the last year. It does say thatif the UK was hit by a pandemic, Movianto would be asked to take up the vaccine storage and distribution role.

But no one knew – until it happened – that the first vaccine lifeline we would be thrown would require storage at a highly-challenging -75°C.

How the operation accommodated the -75°C Covid curveball

In a whirlwind six months to accommodate the Covid-19 operation, Movianto had to:

  • Design a deep-frozen cold-chain mass vaccination storage and distribution service that previously didn’t exist anywhere in the world
  • Repurpose and fit out a new dedicated – and highly secure – Covid-19 vaccination storage centre for new types of vaccines never used or distributed to anyone before, and recruit 350 new employees to work there
  • Create and roll out an extensive training plan – in pandemic safety conditions – to make sure the different technologies were managed in the individual ways necessary
  • Source a new fleet of specialist vehicles needed to reach the hundreds of outlets in the NHS vaccination network. The company has 90 vehicles of its own and hires others if needed. They deliver Covid-19 vaccines to almost 890 NHS sites around the UK.

Because of the early commitment to the vaccines by the government, Movianto was also ahead of the game and able to buy equipment and specialist packaging material – such as ultra-low-temperature laboratory quality freezers, cool boxes, gel packs and dry ice. .

The hot hearts – the passion of the people involved

“Every picker, every driver, every shift manager, every one of our customer service team stepped up and helped make it happen. They have played a part in making history.”

The vaccine supply chain has involved more than 400 people in Movianto alone, 350 of them new employees. Some of these people have joined the business after losing or leaving jobs in industries badly affected by the pandemic. This includes tourism and the pub trade.

Here are some of the things they say:

Abbie Hughes, a team leader at Movianto, who looks after the people who pick and pack and process the vaccines. The mother of a two-year-old toddler has been working an extra day of overtime so she can support the vaccine roll-out. She misses her little boy but she is determined to do all she can to help. She joined Movianto just before the start of the first lockdown as her work in the travel industry started to evaporate.

“The pick-pack procedure we have to follow is, as you can imagine, a bit more intense than just popping the product in a box.”

“I loved seeing how excited my grandmother was to get her vaccine, knowing I played a big part in her getting it. She missed my little boy more than anything in the world and she couldn’t wait to hug him again.”

“My family couldn’t be prouder of me and keep reminding me that I’ll be “A part of history.”

“We’ve been working towards a UK where we can meet friends and family again and hug our loved ones and I feel a huge part of that.”

“My main concern during the past year has been the wellbeing of my little boy. He’s  spent almost half his short life in lockdown, unable to see family and his friends, unable to even go to the park or soft play centre.”

“Even when I have days where I feel over-run and absolutely exhausted I’m reminded about how great it will be in 40 years to tell my grandchildren about how their nana played a big part in beating the Coronavirus. My little boy, however, is more bothered about wearing my hi-vis and badge when I get home.”

Simon Crowe, general manager for government contracts at Movianto UK, who helped devise the new system with NHS Supply Chain, Public Health England (PHE) and public health professionals from the devolved governments. Simon is 35, and has had his first vaccine. But his mum, who is in a high-risk category, has had both of hers and she has now started feeling confident enough to join him and his family, and once again cuddle her two young grandsons.

“We didn’t often stop to think about it – because we were getting on with the job – but when we did, it was emotional and mind-blowing.”

“We were holding in our hands the very first fully tested vaccine for a virus that had brought the world to a stand-still. For a virus that has killed millions of people. And we were there, part of the team helping to stop it.”

“We were holding the thing that saves lives. We held the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Every picker, every driver, every shift manager, every one of our customer service team stepped up and helped make it happen. They have played a part in making history.”

Sam O’Donnell, the IT manager for government contracts at Movianto, who has been responsible for developing and re-engineering all the systems needed to underpin the vaccine roll-out plan. Sam admits it was ‘a bit mad really’, but as he was getting his jab, all he could think about was watching the first-ever Pfizer being delivered on a cold December evening, and he looked to see if it was from a batch he recognises from the systems he’s helped create.

“Covid has made the past 12 months the busiest 12 months of my life. I started the crisis at 30. And while I’m now 31, it feels like there were about 10 years between the two.”

“I was onsite when the very first lorry arrived with the very first vaccines. It must have been around midnight as we watched from a darkened office to see the lorry and its police escort driving towards the building, and it was just such an awe-inspiring moment that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

“It’s taken time for me to fully grasp the magnitude of what I and the business are doing here I think….when you put so much effort in to make sure one bit of data passes from A to B, it can be easy to forget that the final result of that ‘data’ will be someone getting a jab in their arm and getting us a step closer to reaching the other side of this crisis.”

John Holland, a warehouse operative, picks and packs the ultra-low temperature vaccines (ULT). He started just before the first vaccines arrived in the UK. He used to run a pub until the pandemic restrictions closed them all.

“I pick and pack the Pfizer vaccine at -75° and everything has to be bang on before we let it out of the warehouse.”

“I’m over the moon with what’s getting done with the vaccines going out. It’s satisfying to know that every single box is a step closer to normality for us all.”

“There isn’t anyone that Covid hasn’t affected in some way and every task completed is one step closer to the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Paul Wilkinson, vice-president and managing director of Movianto UK, who joined the company in June 2020 just as the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out discussions were starting. At 56, he’s had both his vaccines.

“The vaccines are valuable beyond imagination. They are the way we’re saving lives, getting our economy back on track and our lives back to normality.

“Everyone in our team has been fully aware of the importance of the job we’ve been doing, and how it just could not fail. They have pulled out the stops at every juncture.”

“I am incredibly proud of everyone involved.”

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