Planning for and responding to emergencies is second nature to Karen Jones.
As Swansea Bay’s Head of Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) Karen is used to expecting the unexpected.
But nothing could have prepared her for the special invitation she received in recognition of her role in the health board’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a way of thanking her for her hard work, Karen (pictured) was invited to attend one of the Royal garden parties held annually at Buckingham Palace.
It is her duty to ensure the health board is prepared for high risks and emergencies and is able to respond and recover when necessary.
Over the last two years, much of her day-to-day work has unsurprisingly been focused on the response to Covid-19.
This has involved preparing and responding to various scenarios, the initial setting up of testing centres and creating a co-ordination centre where vital information could be shared between services.
“My job is to try to be one step ahead to try and stop us going into an emergency situation but also being prepared to deal with them if they occur,” Karen said.
“I could see flurries of information coming through about the outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019. In January I spoke to our Executive Director of Public Health, Dr Keith Reid, about it as it seemed to be increasing in activity.
“After learning more, I said I think we should invoke our pandemic response plan. I dealt with the measles outbreak in 2013 and I knew this was a rising tide emergency and going the same way so we reacted early.
“I am very proud to say that we stood up our pandemic plans early in order to be prepared.
“We developed templates based on the information about what was going on in Wuhan and asked service groups to develop responses based on a number of ‘what if’ scenarios.
“We had to set things up very quickly.”
As part of her role, delivering on training and exercising is paramount and Karen has to organise staff exercises as a way of testing the emergency plans in place, should they be needed in future.
Just months before Covid-19 emerged, she had arranged a pandemic response exercise, in conjunction with Public Health Wales, the learning of which went on to form the basis of the real-life response in Swansea Bay.
Karen said having a Covid co-ordination centre, known as Gold Command, where senior members of staff could receive situation updates and share information had been crucial in managing the response.
At the height of the pandemic, meetings were held three times a day as guidance and information was changing rapidly.
“It was a lifesaver because in an emergency you need a central point for all information to come in so you can manage it and distribute it,” Karen said.
“It was like a tsunami coming towards us and we were trying to make sense of all of the information, especially when we were receiving several versions of guidance about the same thing within a short space of time.
“As well as the massive response within the health board, we also had to link in with multi-agencies and their equivalents to Gold Command structures.
“It was a phenomenal response.”
Karen said she was very surprised to receive the invitation to one of the Royal garden parties but she emphasised that it was a team effort thanks to the hard work from those around her, as well as wider health board staff.
Pictured: Karen at the Royal garden party with her husband Martin.
She added: “It was a complete and utter surprise and I was extremely humbled as I really wasn’t expecting it. I was honoured.
“It was a truly memorable day and the weather was beautiful. There were so many people present, all being recognised for their contributions to society, so I really did feel humbled to be part of it.
“At the beginning of the pandemic it was hard but I was in awe as I couldn’t believe how everybody pulled together. The camaraderie and teamwork – that community tight-knit feel was something I’ll never forget.
“It’s been a team effort from an accumulation of people who had to come together from all areas, led by Dr Keith Reid.
“It is an amazing job and I absolutely love it because no one day is the same. It is so varied and you can achieve so much.”
Siân Harrop-Griffiths, Director of Strategy, said: “Karen was instrumental in establishing Swansea Bay’s response to Covid, meaning that we were in front of most health boards in our planning.
“For example, we were the first to establish a testing centre for staff.
“She has worked tirelessly through the pandemic, utilising her skills and experience on emergency planning and business continuity to enable us to respond so well as an organisation.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for her efforts to be rewarded.”