The vaccine roll-out has helped the UK return to work and social activities, supporting the economc recovery ©Getty Images
The vaccine roll-out has helped the UK return to work and social activities, supporting the economc recovery ©Getty Images

A procurement masterclass in 'building a plane while flying it'

Specialists who worked together to figure out how to deliver Covid vaccines before they existed hope their approach will be replicated for other successful projects

Experts working as part of the UK Vaccine Taskforce (VTF) were “amazed and humbled” by the reaction of their peers to their winning the overall prize at the CIPS Excellence in Procurement Awards 2021.

After triumphing in the Procurement Team of the Year – large organisation, and Public Procurement Project of the Year categories, they were overwhelmed when all those attending in person stood to congratulate – and thank – them as they collected the award. The team told SM they had been so focused on the day job, they hadn’t quite considered what their achievements meant to others.

VTF director general Maddy McTernan says: “We’re all problem solvers, we tend to be ‘heads down and get on with it’. With the right people, right mission and right attitude, you can achieve an awful lot.”

In just eight months the then 200-strong group – comprising specialists from industry, government and academia – identified, bought and deployed the first vaccines in the world.

Its work has already saved more than 123,000 lives and prevented more than 23.9m infections, according to Public Health England estimates released in mid-September. At that point, 93,274,224 doses had been administered with 89.6% of over-16s having had at least one vaccination and more than 82% having received two.

 The VTF also helped the economy to reopen, enabled families and friends to come together once more and left a lasting legacy for the profile and reputation of the procurement and supply profession.

Ruth Todd CBE, former programme director and now chief commercial officer at HS2, says: “I was recently thanked for making the profession ‘cool’. The Covid crisis has done that. It’s been procurement and supply chain that has enabled a swift response. The profession has historically been hidden and now we’re at the fore.”

Former VTF director general Nick Elliott MBE says: “The most amazing bit was walking up to the stage and people standing up – I don’t think anyone anticipated that feeling,” says Todd. “We knew the taskforce got a great result, but we were just doing our jobs.”

Start a new supply chain

When the VTF was set up by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, in April 2020, it was challenged to put together a programme to deliver something that didn’t exist – a Covid-19 inoculation. Vaccine development typically takes 10-15 years and the UK, a country reliant on a bought-in drug supply, with little domestic vaccine development or manufacturing capacity, was not best placed to secure solutions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked the group to deliver on three objectives: to secure access to promising Covid-19 vaccines for the UK population as quickly as possible; to make provision for international distribution of vaccines; and to support the UK’s industrial strategy by establishing a long-term vaccine strategy and prepare the UK for future pandemics.

From a standing start, the VTF, run by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, had to build an expert team rapidly in an environment it likened to “building the plane while we fly it”.

The team defined the strategy, assessed the global vaccine landscape, performed detailed due diligence and developed plans to prioritise, secure supply of and develop optimally the most promising portfolio of vaccines for the UK. It then held complex contract negotiations, led by McTernan, early and continual benchmarking and should-cost analysis to secure optimal pricing as well as a quality product.

It recognised this challenge wasn’t about procuring a commodity but investing in products that did not yet exist, and for which at-risk investment in manufacturing was essential if inoculations were ever to be available at scale.

Suppliers were supported through the product development cycle, with capacities and capabilities enabled through joint government and industry working and investment. The pharmaceutical sector was forced to work in an unprecedented way – it needed to develop vaccines in parallel with producing them.

Integrate procurement 

Elliott, now CEO at security and artificial intelligence company Helsing UK, said it was a complex programme with commercial and procurement elements at its core. It required a government organisation to work hand in hand with the supply chain, especially major drug companies.

“It was the ability to integrate procurement and supply chain into a really complex programme that is really important here,” he says. Collaboration was key, with all parties invested in a clear and critical common mission. “If you define success from the start, set up an integrated team and collaborate, you’ve got a good chance,” he adds.

Programme director Steve Glass OBE describes it as a “marriage of supply chains that already existed with some that perhaps didn’t”. He says since data was lacking, “we had to try to predict what supply was going to do, the deployment rate, uptake rate and different scenarios to try to anticipate as many problems as possible to boost resilience”.

Challenges ranged from global shortages of materials, such as the consumable parts used in biopharmaceutical manufacture, to geopolitical concerns with concurrent demand from many nations, and from variable development timelines to manufacturing scale-up issues.

In a letter to the VTF in February, Johnson said: “Your close work with suppliers has been invaluable and is now reaping benefits for the whole world by enabling an overall increase in production capacity. I hope you take immense pride in the work you have done.”

Global solutions

Now around 300-people strong, the VTF is running the booster programme and, in addition to its work to supply British overseas territories and Crown dependencies, it is ensuring vital supplies are sent overseas.

“Our second objective is to ensure vaccines are used effectively internationally and we have so far donated 10.3m doses [as of 14 September]. We are not sitting on large stockpiles of vaccines. We’re incredibly focused on making the most efficient use of an incredibly precious commodity,” says McTernan.

The team has learned a lot from its approach, such as the need for a relentless focus on outcomes with proportionate process, and the success of bringing together genuine experts from the academic, public and private sectors.

“These things have to be repeated,” says Elliott. “Critical, nationally important programmes need to be delivered efficiently and effectively. They might be described as ‘business as usual’ but they have to be done well. We’ve got to translate what we learned to bring together the right talent and capability and be ruled by outcomes not process.” 

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