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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Pulling together to respond to COVID-19

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JT Janssen, Chief Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory

When lockdown was announced, like everyone else, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) had to rapidly change its ways of working to stay safe. We drastically reduced the number of staff on site and embraced technologies that enabled us to work remotely. As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, responsible for measurement standards and infrastructure in the UK, we remained open throughout the pandemic to ensure that we delivered core critical services such as:

  • Healthcare services – calibrations necessary for delivery of cancer treatments, sterilisation of medical equipment and assurance of radiopharmaceuticals
  • Timing –maintaining the UK’s National Time Scale UTC(NPL) and contributing to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the global time scale, is vital for navigation, telecommunications, data transfer, fair financial trading and more
  • Environmental monitoring – running air quality networks in England and Wales and calibrating the networks in Scotland ensured that we continue to meet clean air regulations
  • Nuclear safety – calibration of neutron detectors to allow continued safe operations in nuclear power stations


NPL is a national laboratory with a track record in innovative research with real impact, so we wanted to do more to address the immediate healthcare crisis and support UK companies. I turned to my colleagues to ask what they thought NPL should be doing to make the most of its expertise – they of course did not disappoint. They reached out to healthcare contacts and industry to ask them what they needed, and we engaged with government to see where we could offer our help. Rapidly we had a multitude of activities up and running, from helping analysis of health data and giving guidance on fever screening to designing ventilators and advising on manufacturing standards.  I would like to give you a snapshot of the activity we have undertaken since March this year.

Perfecting Personal Protective Equipment for the Frontline

The COVID 19 situation meant that across the world there was a shortfall personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies. This led to new manufacturers of PPE being established and existing companies turning their capabilities to PPE. In addition, schools, universities and other organisations with 3D printers produced head bands for the face shields.

Andy Morris, our Operations Manager in Huddersfield, coordinated a lot of the work that NPL has undertaken to support the development and manufacture of PPE, particularly ensuring the quality of PPE for use by frontline staff.

We worked with new suppliers, many were SMEs often with little direct experience of PPE manufacture but keen to do the right thing and help at this critical time. We enabled companies to:

  • connect with each other and build their supply chain
  • test PPE produced and then improve their designs – we helped fast track the development of prototypes
  • achieve certification – meeting standards for quality and safety and gaining CE marking

Two companies we had the privilege of working with are Protecting Heroes and Skyrora.

Skyrora is a private rocket company which is developing the next generation of launch vehicles for the small satellite market. During the COVID 19 pandemic Skyrora developed a 3D printed design for a face shield. NPL supported Skyrora by giving guidance on full testing and the CE certification process. NPL used its 3D printers in Teddington, Strathclyde and Huddersfield to boost their manufacturing capacity, so that they could rapidly assemble and deliver face shields to care homes in Scotland.

Protecting Heroes is a not-for-profit community interest company. The team specialises in industrial engineering and design and they have worked on the rapid production of high-quality face shields for deployment to the NHS front line.  NPL has been delighted to support them throughout the process from initial evaluation and revisions to designs, to ensuring that the face shields passed quality and safety standards, receiving CE certification.  NPL also advised on the supply chain and safe assembly of the face shields, ensuring confidence in the quality of the product at all stages of the process. We set up a temporary hub at the NPL sports club where volunteers from NPL organised by Dr Fiona Moriarty put together and packed the face shields ready for distribution. Protecting Heroes are now making 1800 face shields a day and are fulfilling an order for 100,000 face shields for the NHS.

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