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Global deployment of COVID-19 vaccines for the UK government

There are 68 different UK government agencies in 182 different locations overseas. Tens of thousands of staff live and work there – and they needed to be protected from COVID-19.

In November 2020, the FCDO asked us to work with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on an ambitious international vaccine rollout programme. This programme would run alongside the NHS vaccination timetable.

We had to design a strategy to get vaccines to every corner of the globe, dealing with border closures and making sure logistics staff were kept safe. Our operational teams in logistics and regions, both in the UK and abroad, joined the vaccine taskforce.

A questionnaire was sent to Posts to identify how many vaccines were required based on the age and health demographic at the Post. This showed that they needed approximately 64,000 doses. FCDO Services would deliver 70% of the doses, and the remaining 30% would be delivered by the MoD.

Two phase approach

The UK’s overseas network includes many remote and vulnerable Posts.

We always factor in the possibility of disruption when planning, and this strategy led to a different approach in the way we delivered the vaccines.

We had to make sure our rollout was in line with the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation programme, with the same priority groups.

To make sure that travel disruption would not prevent anyone from getting their second jab, we shipped two doses simultaneously. This meant each colleague was guaranteed to receive both doses in the recommended time frame.

This rollout happened in two phases. Phase one included both doses of the vaccination for the over 50s, and those classed clinically at risk. Phase two included the two doses for the remaining personnel under 50.

We started delivering vaccines on 1 March 2021. In the first week we tested the rollout process on just 4 Posts. Once this was successfully completed, we ramped the programme up to 18 Posts in week 2. By 12 April 2021, the team had planned the delivery of 91% of the total number of vaccines, equating to more than 22,000 overseas staff in some of the most remote locations in the world.

It took just three months to deliver the vaccines from start to finish, and involved more than 100 staff across FCDO Services.

A variety of challenges to navigate

As we had to deliver to lots of different time zones, our teams needed to work round the clock. We set up shift patterns to ensure staff were able to rotate.

Staff based on the overseas network were able to provide vital local knowledge and support on the ground. Our teams based in the UK, at the Frankfurt logistics hub and in region put in extra hours and worked night shifts to make sure vaccines arrived safely.

The constantly changing environment affected the planning and operations of the various shipments. This meant adapting to:

  • changing COVID-19 levels around the world
  • Red Listed countries
  • Frankfurt logistics hub usage
  • Resource track and trace limitations
  • VISA and border restrictions
  • flight reliability

A key consideration was to ensure we could effectively transport the temperature controlled vaccines. We made sure that appropriate storage and continuous temperature monitoring was in place, taking into consideration the wide variety of climates we had to travel through.

Ashgabat

In April temperatures in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan reach the mid-30s, and transport options are very limited to this location, so delivery required careful planning. The vaccines were needed urgently due to the rapidly rising COVID-19 infection rates in the country.

There was a chartered flight available to Türkmenabat airport. However, there were uncertainties regarding this flight so we decided to take a different approach. This required more planning and involved more people, but it was important to get delivery right. It turned out to be a good decision as the chartered flight was cancelled at the last minute.

On 8 April one of our Queen’s Messengers flew to Tashkent, Uzbekistan with the vaccines. They arrived in Tashkent on 9 April at 0100 local time, where they were received by the Regional Overseas Security Manager (ROSM). The ROSM secured the vaccines until they were handed over to British Embassy (BE) Tashkent representatives.

From here, the BE Tashkent representatives took the vaccines to Farab on the Uzbek/Turkmenistan border, travelling by car and train.

At the border they were met by representatives from Ashgabat. From the border the vaccines were taken the short distance to Türkmenabat and flown to Ashgabat. They were successfully delivered and stored with the medical provider on 10 April.

I want to say a huge thanks to everyone in the team that contributed. It is hard to express quite how much difference the vaccines are making here. The boost that this programme is bringing – and the palpable sense of the UK Government valuing its staff – is hard to put into words.

Deputy Head of Mission, Brasilia

 

I want to send my personal thanks to all of you for what has been a remarkable programme of work. I have followed the progress of the vaccination programme closely. Delivering the COVID-19 vaccine to over 200 Posts and making vaccines available to more than 30,000 FCDO colleagues and dependents across the globe is a huge achievement.

Sir Philip Barton

Permanent Under Secretary, FCDO

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