One of North Devon’s largest employers has revealed how it reacted quickly and early to face the looming ‘perfect storm’ of the coronavirus.

Accord Barnstaple managing director Sandra Lee. Picture: Accord/Breeze PhotographicAccord Barnstaple managing director Sandra Lee. Picture: Accord/Breeze Photographic

Managers at pharmaceutical manufacturer Accord Healthcare in Barnstaple knew the company would be at the sharp end of the battle against Covid-19, with a huge demand for the medicines it produces.

With the NHS and others relying on its products, the business expected huge challenges such as loss of staff to sickness or shielding, disruption of its supply chain and major changes to the workplace.

Before others had realised the full extent of the crisis, the Accord team had already drawn up plans including the recruitment of a ‘shadow workforce’ - 50 new staff who were trained up and could step in to cover wherever needed.

Managing director Sandra Lee said as the storm prepared to break, they felt there was a responsibility to employees but also beyond, to their families and the community.

She said: “With news coming from Asia about the ferocity of the virus and reports of cases beginning to reach Europe, we took the decision to act early and draw up plans which would safeguard our workforce and ensure business continuity.

“We sat down and analysed – function by function – which staff could conceivably do their job from home. It was a question of practicality, of course. But, we had other considerations to make about how this would impact team work and morale of the teams on site and those working remotely. We had to balance the needs of the business with the wellbeing of our people.”

Head of production Kat Rutter added: “We were very aware that our staff would become key workers - as doctors and nurses in our hospitals would not be able do their jobs without the vital medicines that our teams produce and distribute.

“Rather than cutting our workforce like other manufacturers have been forced to do, we took the decision to recruit 50-plus new employees to support during the pandemic.

“The recruitment of the shadow workforce gave our core staff peace of mind that they had back up if they needed it. I think this helped take the pressure off.

“Further down the line, we have been able to give more flexibility to our staff for holiday as the lock down eased. The extra staff meant we didn’t have to compromise production and the supply of essential medicines.”

Other measures included ‘communications champions’ to keep staff up to date and even care packs for staff that contained useful – and rare – items such as a thermometer and antibacterial gel.

Plus management liaised with local schools and looked at ways of enabling workers to have flexible shift patterns.

Accord Barnstaple is now in the process of reviewing the changes made in the business to understand which are sustainable in the longer term.

Ms Lee said: “While the Coronavirus pandemic is far from over, I feel we have adapted well and not only survived, but really thrived in some areas during 2020.”