At the height of the pandemic in Spring 2020, Su Chantry took time out from her Occupational Health Nurse role at Williams F1 to return to hospital nursing at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Now that she has returned full-time to Williams, she reflects on the challenges of ensuring racing can continue during a pandemic.
As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, and with the great majority of Williams F1 staff on furlough due to the lockdown, Su was able to help out by working as a Bank Nurse at the John Radcliffe Hospital (JR). The management at Williams were highly supportive – continuing to pay a salary despite so much of her work being for the NHS.
But as cases reduced and the lockdown was eased, so she reduced her hours at the JR and spent more time in her main job. She continued at the JR through May and June but eventually returned full-time to her employer.
“My primary role in occupational health as a Public Health Nurse is risk assessment health,” she explains, “and this was the role I returned to – supporting the managers at Williams F1 by advising, guiding and setting up the processes for the safe return of production staff and then the race team, who came back to work in June.
“We brought a few of the production staff back first so they could make face shields for the rest of the team. It was a busy time, having to produce guidelines and a protocol for a safe return to the factory – and then when the race team returned in June, working through the FIA (the governing body for world motor sport) guidelines with them to ensure they could travel safely and setting up a Covid-19 testing programme for them.”
Managing Covid-19 safety in a sport that involves a 100-strong team moving from country to country, while a team of nearly 1,000 – including both F1 and Formula-E – is working in the factory, is a complex task to put it mildly.
“Our race team can’t travel until they have confirmed negative status. We have had to set up a testing programme to provide rapid results. We have to ensure they have all the right equipment to meet the FIA rules. We also have to make sure the travel arrangements enable them to get to and from the race sites safely.
“Once at the track, they have to be tested every five days – originally it was every three days – and we have put protocols in place to do that. There are protocols to ensure they work within their own bubbles. So, for example, the media team have to stay in their own bubble and not mix with the other team media personnel.
“Of course the drivers have to have their own individual bubbles as well. They need to be able to speak with the engineers, and get in and out of the car during practice.
“I also had to set up protocols to cover the ‘what ifs’, such as one of the team becoming unwell and have to isolate. There’s a lot of behind the scenes going on and complex logistical work to manage the risk to the race team.
“And then alongside that, there’s working to UK government guidelines for the factory – supporting our staff with health risks, finding ways to enable two metre distancing, working out how many of our staff we need in the factory and how many can work from, developing a system for the canteen to be safely open, and many other things.
“The race calendar has been incredibly challenging and it’s all credit to everybody at Williams and in the sport as a whole that we are making it happen. From what I understand from the travelling team, it’s a bit odd not having the fans there but they just get in the garage and crack on!”
Return to a new normal
Su doesn’t expect the current situation to change much in the near future – although having done a huge amount of work to establish protocols to manage the risk from Covid-19, her job has at least returned to something like normal, even if that’s a ‘new normal’.
“As long as Covid-19 is still a risk that can cause significant health problems, it’s got to stay on our radar and we have to guard against complacency. It requires us to act in quite a non-natural way, we’re social – we want to get together and talk about our racing. So we have to keep reminding people.
“But the processes have been laid down so well that people have felt safe returning to work at Williams. The situation has huge ramifications – financial and logistical – but I feel we’ve managed it well so it’s not causing major issues for us.
“People have got into a good routine and seem quite self-sufficient now. So that means my role is not totally dominated by Covid-19. I can get on with all the other aspects of my job. As a public health nurse, I am doing what I trained to do – doing what it says on the tin!
“Also, I’ve had great support right from the very top. The senior leadership team have prioritised the safety of all our staff – from the cleaners in the factory through to the racing team.”
Looking to the future
Su remains on the JR’s books, so potentially could return if the pandemic gets a lot worse again. But hopefully that won’t happen and looking to the future, she is very positive and sees some of the changes as good things in themselves.
“I think the pandemic has made us all think more about our work-life balance. Do we really all need to spend so much time in the office? There are good reasons for coming in – there is a mental health risk from missing out on human contact – but it’s good to find a balance. Being forced to think about that has actually been quite refreshing.”