I’m Liz Versi, Regional Director for Border Force in the North. Our teams protect the border in all sea and airports in the north of England, North Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I am usually on the road a lot, travelling to visit our ports and people, and if I am not doing that, I am in our regional base at Manchester Airport.
“You can’t spell adversity without Versi”
The last five months have been like no other time in living memory. Things that would have seemed incomprehensible this time last year are now our day-to-day business: lockdowns, shielding, social distancing, working from home, wearing face coverings.
For us in Border Force, two changes hit in quick succession in March: our world changed, and our ways of working changed. Our work is about travel – people, and goods. While the movement of goods became more critical than ever; to get personal protective equipment, medical supplies, food and essentials into the country; the aviation industry all but shut down overnight.
At the same time, large numbers of people were advised to shield themselves and their loved ones, because they were more at risk if they caught the coronavirus. Everyone was told to reduce their movements and stay home as much as possible. This left our senior team caught between wanting to be in our ports alongside our teams, many of whom continued to work throughout the period, but needing to be responsible and follow government advice. Some people found themselves unexpectedly working at home for the first time while others felt that they had to hold the front line in our ports as the rest of the world retreated indoors.
How did we get through this?
I didn’t wait to have all the answers before communicating with people. We put together our plans for the region quickly; how we would re-tool our operations, how we could keep in touch with people and how we could protect ourselves from the virus. Open communication was everything; we shared our strategy with everyone, at home and at work and created regular video messages that frankly discussed the extraordinary challenges we faced.
Through this new way of doing things, our 1200-strong team began to feel a bit smaller. We got to know people on a more open level through our daily Skype dial-in sessions called ‘Natter in the North’. This brought together people of all grades, ages and roles from all four countries to talk about everything from wellbeing, nature, pets and their hobbies. This was a true digital community where people could drop by for half an hour to escape what was going on in the rest of the world.
We sent letters to people’s children to thank them to helping us do our jobs and explaining why their parents and carers were still going to work when other people were at home. We phoned people for a chat and really listened to each other. We made sure that no person was forgotten. We said thank you. A lot.
I carried on coming to work in Manchester, and worked on the immigration controls to check quarantine forms alongside my colleagues, as I always have done. I put on the mask and gloves, managed the queues, scanned passports too.
In all that we have done, I always want to change things for the better, not to walk past and accept ‘ok’ or ‘good enough’, but to strive and keep pushing so that we have the best, are the best, and that people feel that they matter and are genuinely cared for.
It is not easy doing that when you are running a large operational business, and sometimes we get it wrong, but when you get it right, it is the most rewarding feeling in the world.
This year so far has been a challenge, unpredictable, hard work and upsetting for all of us who know someone who has lost their lives to the virus and those families whose lives have been changed forever. However, I do think it has brought out the best in us too.