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The big question: Did having pathology networks help during the pandemic?


David Wells

Chief Executive


In a short answer, yes!

When I was asked to bring together the laboratories serving the NHS to stand-up COVID-19 testing it was in no uncertain terms a daunting prospect. At the time, in England, we knew that there were something like 140 NHS laboratories, operated by 122 different providers. Conversations with 122 to 140 different laboratories was not an option – it would have been unworkable and disastrous. Thankfully, we also had 29 pathology networks, designated by the NHSE/I transformation programme, my then day job.

Being able to bring together and speak to 29 networks was an entirely different prospect, and one that was working within a couple of weeks. For those on these calls, the roll call of networks became somewhat of a tradition, giving the whole country a view of what was happening, where and how individual teams were overcoming the numerous trials and tribulations, or how they were applying the latest political directive.

The leadership that individual networks demonstrated showed the best of the NHS. The professionalism and dedication, even during the darkest periods of the pandemic, gave me a huge degree of assurance that the pathology community was willing, ready and more than able to respond to the demands made of them.

Without the networks, we could not have achieved collectively what we did. It is rare to have the opportunity to serve your country as scientists; without this vital network, that would have been impossible.

Nicola Newman

Managing Director

Berkshire and Surrey Pathology Services

During the pandemic, Berkshire and Surrey Pathology Services (BSPS) has been able to respond flexibly and at speed, due to its existing infrastructure, governance and experience. The pre-existing “license to practice” held by BSPS across its many sites and over 1200 staff meant we were able to mobilise the workforce and create a new network laboratory dedicated to mass COVID-19 testing within days.

During the early stages of the pandemic our experience of delivering mass testing meant we could quickly redeploy staff and resources to respond to the changing needs of our six hospitals. This ability to assess the evolving need and adapt our response translated to point-of-care testing as soon as it became available.

The fact that we were an existing network with all the regulatory and governance requirements in place, with an experienced workforce, and a tested management team, made this transition possible in days, not weeks or months.

The network approach also paid dividends in the more recent stages of the pandemic when we experienced high levels of staff sickness due to COVID.

The depth of staff and resources available, our single LIMS, harmonised equipment and tested governance and management structures enabled us to meet the challenge and provide an exemplary service. When we needed to respond rapidly, at scale and with resilience, our network with its resources and operating structures stood up to the task and my thanks must go to our brilliant team.

Jane Mills

Head of Pathology Transformation

NHS England and NHS Improvement

In my opinion, yes. The 29 pathology networks played a significant contribution to managing and coordinating the NHS laboratory response to COVID. It meant fewer conversations to hold. However, in a more considered response, I reflect

that the balance of responsibility and accountability felt appropriately delegated, allowing more local determination when needed to cope with a very dynamic situation, whilst national oversight and control was supported through regular check-in calls with the 29 Pathology Incident Directors.

Using the 29 networks made a daunting task manageable; data could be gathered through structured conversation with a network representative at quite a detailed level. It was organised, analysed and reported using the 29-network model. The time to create this database was significantly reduced through the benefit of fewer conversations with colleagues who had grasped their responsibility to know their network information.

The single point of contact within the network was used to best effect in many roles (procurement, quality and capacity) supporting national communities of practice to share learning and information. Within their networks they were able to develop standardised approaches, support equitable access and mutual aid to enable continued testing in the pandemic. The networks operated and delivered their COVID testing services under the guidance of a national commissioned model to defined standards.

Image credit | Shutterstock


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