An unforgettable year: what have I and we learnt from it?


Nicola McQueen, Chief Executive Officer, NHS Professionals

When I took on the role of NHSP’s CEO, I was ready for anything and I expected the unexpected. It goes with the job and that’s my natural mindset. But the events of 2020/21 stretched that mindset further than I thought possible.

Our recently published 2020/21 Annual Review paints a vivid picture of exactly why. It sets out the sheer volume of what we achieved in close partnership with the NHS, when COVID-19 became a global emergency with such frightening speed.

I’ve taken some time to reflect on these achievements and asked myself: what lessons have I and NHSP learned from the pandemic so far? How do we take these lessons forward and use them to deliver even greater improvements?

Take pride

First, the achievements. There is more detail on these in our Annual Review but here is a summary of what we delivered in partnership with the NHS in 2020/21:

Rapid Response

Our ‘Stand Up, Step Forward, Save Lives’ campaign, delivered in partnership with DHSC and NHSEI, fast-tracked retired, trainee and private sector healthcare professionals on to the NHS front line. It attracted more than 60,000 applications and supplied 20,000 healthcare professionals by May 2020.


Nightingale Hospitals

After a request to staff the Nightingale Hospitals North West, Yorkshire and Humber, South West and London, our recruitment campaign attracted 11,000 applications and we recruited staff including doctors, therapists, nurses, pharmacists, healthcare support workers and managers.


Test and Trace

In partnership with PHE, we developed a clinically assured staffing model to identify, screen and deploy Clinical Contact Caseworkers to contact patients within 24 hours of a positive test. In total, we recruited 10,000 workers in three weeks and traced more than eight million close contacts.


National Vaccination Programme

Following another major awareness and attraction campaign, we delivered around 17,000 vetted and screened vaccinators to NHS Trusts across England over a five-month period and held 5,000 more approved candidates in reserve to deploy when required.


Vaccination Operation Support Team (VOST)

We set up a dedicated microsite and 15-strong specialist recruitment team who worked with more than 40 NHS Trust system lead employers across England to boost numbers of mobile vaccinators.


Bank Membership

Our Bank Member base grew by almost 40% from 130,000 to 180,000 people.


To an extent, delivering these meant we were simply doing what we are here to do: we are the biggest supplier of flexible workers to the NHS. We are experts in putting trained and skilled people in places to care. We have, and always will, stand with the NHS in its hour of need and I had no doubts our fantastic teams would deliver.

But all the same, what we achieved was amazing when I look back on it and the weight of the organisation pushing in one direction was immense. The fact that we got so much done so quickly in a complex engine room like the NHS made it even more impressive. Many people, too, faced their own personal struggles during this time but still held strong. I just could not be prouder of what everyone did under such difficult circumstances.

Now, the lessons.

Lesson one: mission

I think it is easier to run harder and faster at a very defined mission. The ‘mission’ we had when the pandemic hit was very clear. It was to get as many front line workers into wards and hospitals as possible, at speed. Everyone knew what the priority was and it was all-consuming. If anything else was going on in the business that wasn’t to do with that, it wasn’t so much a priority. Decision-making went from efficient to super-efficient, reinforced by the ‘gold, silver, bronze’ crisis command structure we stood up during the first lockdown. We were very clear on what we had to do, by when, and the all-important why. This released huge amounts of energy, pace and innovation and the results were outstanding, as our Annual Review sets out.

To retain that energy and release even more, I think it helps to set very clear missions. We have a strategic vision (Vision 2022), which states where we want to be within the next 12-24 months. Now our job is to set transparent, mission-oriented operational priorities to deliver the vision and that work is well underway. Once set it is crucial we communicate these priorities compellingly to our teams so they really understand what, when and why. In this way we will deliver even higher levels of support and expertise to our Bank Members, client Trusts and the wider healthcare economy.

Lesson two: downtime

The pandemic showed me that we can do amazing things when the mission is clear and the adrenaline is flowing. But it was also a powerful reminder we are human and that running hard and fast all the time just isn’t possible or healthy. It can also feel confusing when the mission is accomplished because the momentum shifts and you can lose some direction. It makes me think of an elite athlete going into ultimate training for a big event and then feeling lost when it’s all over, even if they’ve done well. In this situation it is sometimes hard to get up and go again, with the same energy and enthusiasm.

Having another mission to replace the one just achieved can restore purpose. But knowing how and when to truly wind down and switch off is also key. It’s something I’ve really taken on board as it became clear the pandemic would be a long haul. It has meant I have come to value my own and others’ wellbeing in a whole new way.

Before the pandemic it would have taken a lot to make me take a proper break. Now I have learned that I need to stop, take breaks and consciously build downtime into my regime every day to help clear my mind so I am fresh and back up to speed again tomorrow. It might just be a couple of hours in the evening, or planning some family time away, but I make sure it’s there now because I know it is healthier in the long run.

I’m also much more dialled into the wellbeing of my colleagues in NHSP and that of our Bank Members working on the front line. I take greater responsibility for this as CEO and that is one reason why we’ve introduced a range of new wellbeing tools and resources for both groups. It’s also woven into our new Member Promise to actively welcome, support and celebrate our Bank Members, benefiting their lifestyle and career and our NHS.

Lesson three: confidence

The final major lesson I take from the past 18 months is about our capacity to pivot fast and step up what we do.

We have exciting strategic improvement projects underway, linked to Vision 2022. For example, we are working jointly with NHSEI on a new NHS Staffing Pool to help implement Integrated Care Systems. We are also progressing plans for a new NHSP ‘national bank’ to improve access to and for flexible healthcare workers right across the NHS. These have the potential to bring in significant extra strength and stability to the NHS as it journeys into fully integrated care over the next 2-3 years.

But another crucial initiative is ‘Brilliant Basics’, which is about making sure the details of our business-as-usual and core Member and Trust services are excellent in every way. This is just as important as our longer-term strategic work and it will require energy to get right. At the height of the pandemic we were in full crisis management mode and that generated huge amounts of energy which we used to great effect. Now that the immediate crisis has passed, it’s easy to think that we can longer access that special energy. But I want us to feel confident we can and in our ability to re-access and channel it into both our core and strategic work in sustainable and healthy ways.

Final words

After such a whirlwind year, I’d like to finish with some brief closing messages to the people and organisations we serve, and to those we hope will join us in the future.

To our Bank Members: you have dug deep to support your patients and colleagues and your courage and commitment is so inspiring. I know you could choose to work for a commercial agency but you choose us and the NHS, and that is something I am very thankful for.

To our client Trusts: you’ve had to be very creative to maintain safe and sufficient staffing levels and support your patients’ changing needs. You’ll have learnt many lessons. Thank you for what we have achieved together so far. We will do all we can to help you capture and recycle all the positives from the past year and drive your energy and innovation into future services.

To the professionals and Trusts who have yet to join NHSP: we are already the biggest employer of flexible workers to the NHS, but we are striving to go further. Our mission is to provide the best access to flexible working and flexible workers through the creation of our new ‘national bank’. This aims to give healthcare professionals even more choice about how and where they work and to give Trusts even better access to flexible workers to meet their short and longer-term workforce needs, creating a clear career path for the future

With this in mind, I want to encourage healthcare professionals who have yet to join us to sign up for more choice and better access to work, plus robust learning and career development opportunities.

I would also urge Trusts not currently with us to think about accessing our national model. In many cases I know they will already have a brilliant in-house Bank, but if it has any gaps then let’s see if we can work together to fill them so we keep the work in the NHS.