Continuing to fight Covid and celebrating women in science: UKHSA’s Jenny Harries looks back on 2022

The UK Health Security Agency’s first national conference was a highlight for the chief exec
Jenny Harries. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Civil Service World

30 Dec 2022

 

What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?   

My highlight would definitely be the first UK Health Security Agency’s national conference in Leeds in October this year. We had more than 1,100 attendees, including international participants from every continent. As a woman in science myself, I was particularly pleased to see so many women involved – which is a rarity in the science world. And we closed with a session focused on some of the dedicated women in science within UKHSA, which I was honoured to be part of. 

It reminds me of the critical work we do at UKHSA every day and I’ve been pleased to see everyone pulling together to deal with an ever-increasing number of complex health protection responses this year. This includes our continued fight against Covid-19, monkeypox, iGAS (Group A Streptococcal infections), sudden onset hepatitis in children, providing professional assistance to protecting asylum seekers’ health and supporting the response to Ebola in Uganda. 

 What was your most difficult decision in 2022?   

The decision I found most difficult this year, but that proved absolutely to be the right one, was that of winding down the national network of physical Covid test sites as we moved into the Living with Covid stage of managing the pandemic.  

This was the right thing to do at the right time because – unlike at the start of the pandemic – we now have new tests available which can be carried out at home, for example, lateral flow devices. And, most importantly, the public have protected themselves from very serious disease outcomes through taking up vaccination. 

But it was such a symbolic move. For the staff who had built and been working so hard on the sites. For the public in knowing about and trusting in new ways of testing and access. For the country in seeing we had moved forward in our fight against Covid. 

These sites have now been handed back to local authorities, and the equipment reinvested elsewhere in the healthcare system.  

What is the biggest challenge facing UKHSA in 2023, and how do you plan to meet that challenge as an organisation?   

We still have lots more important work to do in relation to Covid-19; the Vaccine Task Force has moved into UKHSA as the Covid Vaccine Unit and we now have excellent data and surveillance systems, together with world-renowned genomic sequencing and publication of technical briefings, which are used as critical evidence for action by other public health institutes globally. However, there are new hazards arising continuously and globally. 

“All of my staff have given so much, beyond anything imaginable, through the last two or three years” 

One of the most exciting opportunities for the future is to take learning from the way the Vaccine Task Force worked, and in particular its close linkage with industry, into a whole new set of developments for how we gain new tests, vaccines and therapeutics. 

And personally, as a leader?   

All of my staff have given so much, beyond anything imaginable, through the last two or three years – whether that’s through UKHSA, Test and Trace, Public Health England or the Joint Biosecurity Centre. We all need to keep a focus on our personal wellbeing to enable us to continue to protect that of the public. 

Taking time out, despite the 'busy-ness' of the job, is really important – it makes our organisation more resilient and decision making better. I need to set the example for this – getting the balance right between being available but also being at our best to respond and to learn.   

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience? 

I remember one Christmas Eve when I was training as a public health registrar/junior doctor and got called in. As a single parent, I arrived at the ward door of a Welsh district general hospital complete with my own personal tribe of four small children aged four to nine. 

The sister asked who I was and then who all the tribe were – I simply said “you try getting a babysitter at 10pm on Christmas Eve”. 

She scowled to start with but then relented by finding a room with colouring books just outside the ward door.  It was the only day I can ever remember when they sat down with each other for 45 minutes and behaved impeccably – I thought Christmas had arrived early!

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