Like most of the UK, NRI began the process of closing down its office and laboratory-based work the week immediately preceding official lockdown, and those who could, began working from home. Since then, only one or two people have been allowed on site at NRI’s Medway base, either for essential maintenance purposes, looking after plants in the greenhouses or tending plant and insect cultures in the insectaries.
Simon Springate, NRI lab manager who’s been at the Institute for 12 years, is tasked with drawing up a workable ‘return to lab work’ plan for researchers and students whose work may be externally funded or time limited and is a priority. “Getting permission sorted was a bit of a challenge. We only have one person in any one room at any one time, preferably one day at a time. The labs weren’t that complicated but the shared spaces took a bit more organising – like the corridors, access ways, etc. People have been really good at staggering their days or working mornings or afternoons, but we still have potential pinch points to iron out.”
Professor Ben Bennett, NRI’s Director of Research, says: “we were worried about people bumping into each other because our laboratories are numerous with some small spaces. The simple solution has been to issue all researchers who are allowed access with a bright red sign with their name on it. This sign is put on the door of the room they are in with a magnetic strip. This way, everyone is aware of where all the other researchers are working.”
Slowly over the past few weeks, NRI management, academics and support staff have worked carefully within government and university guidelines to gradually build up a greater density of people coming in, and detailed protocols have been drawn up making it as easy as possible for people to distance themselves. PPE and cleaning materials have been sourced, and procedures implemented so that everyone can clean up their work area before they leave it, greatly minimizing the risk to everyone else.
The PPE comprises disposable gloves – which are routinely used in the labs under normal circumstances – and face visors, in case two people need to work in the same room in the future. But, PPE is really the last resort, as Simon explains: “I think of it as the last tool in the kit in a risk management sense. The best thing to do is to not do the thing that presents the risk – in the first instance we’ve done this by asking people to justify the need for them coming back at all.”
Manuela Carnaghi, President of the NRI Postgraduate Society, collected and coordinated the information from PhD students on who needed access to the labs, for how long and what equipment was expected to be used. This information was key to organising the working rota, Manuela says: “it has been stressful gathering the information. However, I am very pleased on how well we responded to this emergency situation. Everybody contributed and all the hard work and effort has now paid off. It is a relief to back in the labs, even if for only a few hours per week. As PhD students, we need to comply with certain deadlines for our projects and being able to resume lab work was extremely important for us.”
Many of NRI’s scientists – like plant and insect molecular biologist Sophie Bouvaine – routinely work with various levels of quarantine measures due to the nature of their laboratory work with pathogens and plant viruses. Dr Bouvaine is very happy to be returning to the laboratory as she is working on samples of cassava and whiteflies that were collected from Uganda just before lockdown: “it is strange to be all by myself in the lab but it’s a new normal I have to get used to. On the other hand, I am very relieved to be able to work in a peaceful environment, my home is too busy to be able to work there efficiently.”
“Generally, the lab is a fairly safe place, we work with plant viruses as part of our normal activity, so decontaminating surfaces is part of our operating procedure, but we try to be particularly careful with common areas such as corridors. I think this COVID-19 crisis has taught us the importance of science to support decisions to protect our society, and one thing I really hope is that the lesson will not be lost. However, it is slightly ironic that a virus put a stop to my research on viruses!”
Over a gradual period, approximately 25 people have now returned to their laboratory work to resume their research and experiments. Simon explains: “the management have made the hard business decisions and I just had to make it happen by moving all the pieces around – like the game ‘Tetris’ – to get everyone to agree to what’s available.”
Prof Bennett says he has been really impressed how everybody in NRI, from newly started PhD students to Professors, have worked together to come up with a plan to re-start the laboratory research safely.
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