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Betsy Bassis is the Chief Executive of NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), an Arms Length Body of the Department of Health and Social Care. NHSBT employs around 5,500 people and is responsible for blood donation in England and organ donation across all four nations. The National Leadership Centre spoke to Betsy in September 2020, and this interview reflects her experience at that moment.

What has been the biggest change to your role since the start of the pandemic?

When lockdown first happened, my immediate concern was to ensure that the country didn’t run out of blood. I was very afraid we were going to see a huge decrease in donation as people thought they had to stay at home. 

While we did see a 20% reduction in blood donation in the early weeks and months, that was offset by a reduction in hospital demand. My initial panic didn’t play out, but we had to deal with many other challenges. 

In the organ donation part of the organisation, activity came to a halt as transplant areas were closed. I was very humbled by the fact that our specialist nurses for organ donation decided to go back to their embedded hospitals to support their ICU colleagues. That was incredible.

To adapt to the changes, I set four priorities very early on:

The first being ensuring the health and safety of our staff and donors.

The second being continuity of supply of our critical products and services.

The third being support to the wider national response. The most substantial contribution that we continue to make to the wider national effort is our convalescent plasma programmes. This new operation collects convalescent plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19. That has been an absolutely huge undertaking on top of business as usual activities. 

And the fourth priority that I set for the organisation was to take advantage of the upswell in public support for the NHS to try and build our donor base for the future. We’ve seen a huge uptake in registrations for people wanting to donate blood, and I wanted to ensure that we weren’t wasting that increase in public interest, even if we cannot use them now due to the decrease in demand.

These are priorities we set very early on for the organisation, and as we have been moving into a different phase, those four priorities have really stood the test of time and remain as relevant today as they did then.  

What have those changes meant for your organisation on a day-to-day level? Has there been quite a shift away from business as usual?

The main shift has been the convalescent plasma programme. Compared to our normal annual change programme for the organisation, it is a five-fold increase of activity that we needed to get off the ground. 

This has been delivered in an environment where people are having to manage kids that are homeschooling, working from home, not seeing colleagues, and not meeting people in person. 

There was a huge impact on the HR teams who have had to recruit and train people at a pace and at a scale they have never had to do. Also, our Estates team opened over 15 new blood collection clinics and our IT team had to support the massive change to homeworking. I can go on and on. 

The organisation has done extraordinarily well to rise to the challenge in these very, very trying circumstances. 

We have been able to rely on huge levels of discretionary effort, initially just because of the sense of the public pulling together in the face of a global pandemic, but also this strong, strong commitment people have towards the mission of our organisation: to save and improve lives.

How has it felt being a leader during this period?

I feel very proud and grateful for the support and collaboration I had. I feel very lucky to have such strong support from the board which means I don’t feel so alone. I feel like I couldn’t have done some of these things without their support. 

I love the collaboration. The National Leadership Centre network has been amazing. At one point, blood collection venues started to shut down on us, but another one of the people on the NLC programme was able to instruct his fire stations across the country to stay open for us. That was just amazing. I felt so supported.

It is an incredibly challenging situation, but I feel very, very lucky that I find myself in this position. I get to spend my time and effort contributing to the national response. That’s how I feel. I love it every day. It’s not to say that I’m not shouldering a huge weight of responsibility, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

How has it felt holding that responsibility?

I have spent a lot of time since I started in NHSBT building a very strong team. Not just appointing strong individuals, but creating and really investing in that team. That investment in us as a leadership team prior to the pandemic has really paid off. 

There is high execution risk in what we have stepped up to do at the request of the Department of Health and Social Care, but I love the responsibility. It hasn’t felt overwhelming. That’s partly because I do have a good team, and it’s also because of the perspective I’ve had. 

In previous life, I did work too hard for too long and did lose my emotional resilience. So I know what happens when you have an emotional break. And because of that, I’ve thought a lot throughout about how I maintain my emotional resilience, how I stay self aware, how I look after myself so I can look after other people. 

When I think about how quickly we’ve moved as a team, some of the pace is cutting through red tape. Some of the pace is just people running harder. And that’s not sustainable.

What are you most optimistic about?

I’m optimistic about the organisation. I think we’ve got this fabulous group of people, talented and creative experts in their field, and I’m optimistic we will continue to rise to the challenge. I’m just sorry we find ourselves having to do that. None of us would choose to be in the middle of a pandemic. But we’ve got the right people to try and think about it.

Read and listen to the portraits of these leaders: Steve Russell · Carol Matthews · Stacey Burlet · Susan Lea · Wayne Bowcock · Helen Bailey

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022