The ‘hidden hero’ who helped deliver more than 55,000 vaccines across Bognor

An NHS practice manager has been awarded a ‘hidden hero’ award for setting up Bognor’s Covid vaccination booking system.

Natalie Cole, a 48 year old practice manger at Flansham Park Surgery has received a national award for setting up Bognor’s Covid vaccination system, which helped deliver more than 55,000 vaccines across the region.

Colleagues said Ms Cole, who has now been with the NHS for more than ten years, often worked seven day weeks to get vaccinations to as many residents as possible, juggling her commitments as manager with her duties as leader of the vaccination booking team.

Ms Cole received the award, which recognises her ‘Outstanding Performance during the Pandemic’, on May 25 and, though it’s her name on the plaque, insists it represents the hard work of the entire bookings team, almost all of whom were volunteers.

Left to Right: Dr Tej Bansil, PCN Clinical Director Simone Nascimento, PCN Manager Nat Cole, Practice Manager, Flansham Park Surgery Nigel Pope, Practice Manager, Grove House surgery Tracey Osborne, Managing Partner, Maywood Surgery (Dr James Bramall, PCN Clinical Director also involved but not pictured)

“(The award) is really for the bookings team and our Primary Care Network,” she said. “We were very lucky to get nine practices to work as closely as we do and achieve what we have. It’s really rare. My friends and colleagues have been amazing, we really do work as a great team.

“I’m delighted, obviously. And I think it’s lovely for our profession because we’re having such a difficult time at the minute: I don’t think that, as a primary care unit, we’ve ever worked so hard. People need to see what we go through.”

The bookings team started when Natalie realised their existing models wouldn’t work and was called on to help out.

“It was being dealt with by another team and we had a clinic running for the next day, but it wasn’t booked.. So someone from that team asked if I could help out and I managed to put a team together overnight, by using the Flansham surgery WhatsApp. I just did a shout-out asking ‘I’ve got an issue does anyone want to help me?’ and it went from there.” She said

Ms Cole pulled together a team of 12 volunteers willing to give up their weekends and filled the next day’s clinic. Propelled by that initial success, the bookings team grew at an exponential rate and was soon bigger than Ms Cole had anticipated.

She said: “We had 41 people at our peak. And that was mainly practice staff, people who were willing to give up their evenings and weekends, but we also took on friends and family who’d been furloughed or made redundant.”

Eventually, the booking centre turned into an intimidatingly large operation, essentially demanding that Ms Cole and her team transform the practice into a call centre and back again every evening. Fortunately, Ms Cole had all the experience she needed.

“Call centres are my background,” she said “sourcing staff and getting things in place was something I’d done before, and I think that’s how I fell into it.”

Even so, Ms Cole is reluctant to accept too much of the credit. She said: “It’s really important that what comes across is that sense of a team. It became bigger than I ever thought it would and, while there certainly aren’t any regrets there, that team were with me all the way.”

The Hidden hero awards are presented by four companies which have support practices throughout the pandemic: Dene Healthcare, Gama Healthcare, Interface Clinical Services and Practice Index.

Ricky Palacio of Dene healthcare, who presented the award to Ms Cole, said: “2020 was a hard year for most and sadly the amazing work being done in General Practice is too often overlooked, Natalie Cole is exactly the type of Practice Manager we were hoping to identify and in some small way thank them for their contribution during the most difficult period in modern times.”