Stories from the Front Line: Welsh Universities and Colleges Supporting the NHS Covid-19 Response

The below piece is a guest blog provided to us by Jisc and discusses the role of Welsh universities and colleges in the fight against Covid-19 and in particular the role that Jisc’s Janet Network has had in the underlying digital infrastructure of these projects.

As the coronavirus crisis has ripped through the UK, universities and colleges are playing an ever-growing role in supporting community efforts to fight the virus. From donating space for field hospitals to providing PPE and training, the education sector is stepping up to share expertise.

Bangor University

Back in April, as part of a wider COVID-19 response programme, the biggest health board in Wales, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, approached Bangor University looking for resources to help set up a temporary hospital. Canolfan Brailsford, which normally functions as a sports and fitness centre for the university, was selected, and construction began almost right away. Within a two-week period, Canolfan Brailsford was completely transformed.

Alongside the essential real estate for the field hospital, it was important that the facility maintain a secure internet connection and network to allow staff to access NHS infrastructure remotely.

Welsh institutions receive a connection to Jisc’s Janet Network through the PSBA, a non-profit organisation that delivers secure connectivity for the public sector in Wales. The Janet Network is the UK's national research and education network (NREN), providing high capacity, high availability internet access for education and research across the country. Bangor staff worked with the PSBA to extend the NHS network, using the university’s dark – or unused – fibre to provide a connection to the temporary hospital, and facilitate a secure internet link.

The whole process was a smooth one, says Simone Barberesi, director of IT services at Bangor University: “This project took less than a week to come together, so we can see what’s possible when everyone’s working together for a common goal. It’s absolutely amazing.

“The field hospital has full connectivity; everything you’d expect from a hospital, including wired ports, wireless, and a dedicated phone system. And it’s all working across the university’s fibre.”

As well as making sure the university could support the NHS within as short a timeframe , the IT team also had to perform due diligence in safeguarding the university’s network. Simone explains: “We had to make absolutely certain our network was secure, because our users are remote workers. We had to make sure that connectivity to all areas of the network in Bangor were safeguarded, and that this piece of work didn't put that at risk."

Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth University has also had a hand in supporting the NHS, working with Hywel Dda University Health Board to set up a key worker screening centre and clinical space for local GP use. The centre, housed on the university’s Penglais campus, was set up in late April and is in close proximity to an existing GP surgery, which was already being serviced by the university’s digital infrastructure. Hefin James, from the university’s department of information services, said: “The university has had digital presence in the nearby surgery for around four or five years. So we already had fibre extended from our main infrastructure running through the surgery. From there it was quite easy to extend it down into the new testing centre.”

This connection was an essential element of the testing centre’s digital infrastructure within its first couple of weeks, because although the surgery was running its own Multiple Occupancy Site Service (MOSS) circuit - which allows multiple public sector organisations within the same site to use a single PSBA connection - the bandwidth being delivered was not sufficient.

The university stepped in and a MOSS circuit was set up on the university’s infrastructure which offered more than enough capacity to support the testing centre. This allowed a continuation of operations while an update was delivered.     

The university worked with the PSBA, BT and the Hywel Dda University Health Board during this project, and being a part of the team has been a joy, says Hefin: “As engineers, it’s in our nature to just to get on and do things without any fuss. But obviously we’re pleased to play our own small part in helping the NHS, especially at this time when they’re fighting the virus. Although it’s obviously a very worrying time for everyone, it’s been a source of comfort to see everyone pulling together at the university and elsewhere to help out.

“As well as facilitating the use of the university’s digital infrastructure, I know that departments at the university have been donating and manufacturing PPE for workers and have housed and trained health and emergency workers on campus. There are ongoing discussions with local and national partners about what more we can do to assist the efforts to tackle this cruel virus.”

Neath Port Talbot College

But it is not only the higher education sector that has offered its expertise. Colleges have also played an essential role in supporting the NHS, and Neath Port Talbot College offered up its Llandarcy Academy of Sport building as a field hospital for the Swansea Bay University Health Board.

Llandarcy is one of two key sites in the Swansea Bay area that is providing extra beds for Covid-19 patients if and when beds in Morriston, Singleton and Neath Port Talbot hospitals are filled.

The college also facilitated network connectivity for the field hospital, providing a wireless access point and connection to Jisc’s secure Janet Network, through which hospital staff could connect to NHS infrastructure. The college also helped ensure that network points were available throughout the hospital, such as at nursing stations and beds, to support any connectivity needs at these sites.

Jonathan Fellows, from the informatics directorate at Swansea Bay University Health Board (SBUHB), says: “Mike Burns from NPT College was extremely helpful in SBUHB IT gaining a quick and comprehensive understanding of the existing network and infrastructure on site. He raised the request with Jisc on our behalf to utilise the existing circuit at the site, quickly and efficiently.” 

Jeremy Sharp, Janet chief technology officer, adds: “Jisc has a proud history of supporting UK education and research with a range of digital services, including the world-class Janet Network. We also work collaboratively with the broader public sector including the NHS, local government, schools, and the private sector into science and innovation parks.

“In this way we are keen to play our part in the UK’s digital transformation. It’s important that the UK continues to modernise the way we communicate and collaborate, and when met with the necessity demanded by the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been pleased to be able to play our part in rapidly bringing together solutions. All sorts of demands on the UK have meant that we need to learn and work differently, and the Janet Network has, and will continue to be, a key underpinning service. “

We hope you enjoyed the above guest blog piece written by Jisc and hope that it will provide you with some ideas that you can implement within your own organisation.

This piece is just one of many we have written as part of the newly launched IG Higher Education Community Hub.

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