BAE Systems staff in Lancashire are getting back to work safely as the coronavirus lockdown eases

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Aerospace workers in Lancashire have been heading back to work following the Government's relaxing of coronavirus lockdown rules for some businesses.

The skies over Preston and the Fylde coast have been quiet for the past seven weeks with few commercial airliners to be seen. And it is only in recent days that the regular flights of BAE Systems' aircraft have started again, as critical testing resumes for the manufacturer which employs almost 10,000 people in the county.

A lone Typhoon has been seen on various days as it tests new radar equipment for the RAF and pilots keep their hours up. But behind the scenes BAE Systems staff have had to adapt and pull together to carry on the work carried out at Samlesbury and Warton which is crucial for the armed forces throughout the lockdown period.

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At the start of the restrictions in March, the company sent home its entire workforce so that measures could be put in place to make work areas safe and complaint with social distancing rules to prevent the transmission of the virus.

BAE Systems staff social distancing at work during the coronavirus lockdown. Around 2,700 of the 10,000 Lancashire staff ar back at work the rest wroking from homeBAE Systems staff social distancing at work during the coronavirus lockdown. Around 2,700 of the 10,000 Lancashire staff ar back at work the rest wroking from home
BAE Systems staff social distancing at work during the coronavirus lockdown. Around 2,700 of the 10,000 Lancashire staff ar back at work the rest wroking from home | other

But soon the firm identified staff who were deemed as delivering critical national defence and security roles and got them back on site where they have been working for a number of weeks.

Working alongside the trade unions and the Government, BAE Systems has continued to bring people back into the sites and now has around 2,700 people working across Samlesbury and Warton, - about a quarter of its workforce with the other three-quarters working from home.

Since the Prime Minister urged that anyone who could safely return to work should do so, the company has stepped up the return although a significant proportion of its people are still working remotely.

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Chris Boardman, group managing director of BAE Systemns AIr, based in Lancashire, said he was proud of the way the staff had reacted to the crisis, not only in carrying on working, but also in helping others, producing more than 20,000 3D printed face-shields for NHS staff.

Signs about social distancing at BAE Systems in Lancashire as staff get back to work as the coronavirus lockdown easesSigns about social distancing at BAE Systems in Lancashire as staff get back to work as the coronavirus lockdown eases
Signs about social distancing at BAE Systems in Lancashire as staff get back to work as the coronavirus lockdown eases | other

He said the firm had provided staff at home with extra, secure IT they need to do their jobs and supported them to juggle matters like home schooling or caring responsibilities, and the challenges of isolation or stress.

He said: "You can do a lot of what we do from home and most of our employees are at home. I am proud of our people of how they respond and what they do.

"When you look at who our customers are, those that our defending us, quite quickly that did not just embrace our traditional customers, the Royal Air Force, but also NHS and care workers who are protecting us too.

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"When the lockdown came in we had to decide if we were confident that our facilities were within Public Health England's guidance and whether we had consulted with our people and trade unions. So we paused for a couple of weeks while we got all that in place. We knew we had to get most people working from home so we put a lot of effort into increasing the ability of the IT networks and volumes. That took a lot of innovation from our engineering staff, but that is what they are good at.

BAE Systems staff social distancing at work during the coronavirus lockdown. Around 2,700 of the 10,000 Lancashire staff ar back at work the rest wroking from homeBAE Systems staff social distancing at work during the coronavirus lockdown. Around 2,700 of the 10,000 Lancashire staff ar back at work the rest wroking from home
BAE Systems staff social distancing at work during the coronavirus lockdown. Around 2,700 of the 10,000 Lancashire staff ar back at work the rest wroking from home | other

"You cannot build aircraft and maintain aircraft for the RAF at home. You physically need to be on site. But we consulted with the UK Govenment and the MOD to identify the critical things we needed to be doing for ourselves and for our allied nations."

He said aircraft maintenance, manufacture of spare parts and the F-35 production line, where they build the rear section of the fifth generation aircraft for the US and Britain, had to keep going.

"That does not mean everyone is there all the time, we have a shift system. We had to go through every area, we re-layed the factory out re-layed the offices and put in appropriate signage. We even have our cleaners with yellow shirts with a 2M distance message on them. That was their choice, their contribution into making all this work.

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"The site which has the most people back is Samlesbury. It's a big manufacturing site and an important part of the logistics supply chain to our customers."

Chris Boardman group managing director of BAE Systems Air.Chris Boardman group managing director of BAE Systems Air.
Chris Boardman group managing director of BAE Systems Air. | other

He said the site has 2,000 back at work, but with a shift system only about 1,500 are there at any one time compared to up to 5,000 normally. The company has 35,000 employees nationally and around 10,000 are back on site.

"My own mental model has been to plan for 18 months. The bottom line is there's no cure for this virus yet, so what we are doing is managing it and managing around it. It's not easy to see there's going to be a quick move out. Health and Safety has to come first, but we all want to repair the social and economic damage that is happening to the nation as quickly as possible.

"It's not easy and not natural but we have to work in a new way. We will not ask anyone to do a particular task if they have not got the right PPE and we will not take it from sources the NHS might need. In fact part of our support those who protect us philosophy is that we have made and distributed in Lancashire alone 20,000 face-shields which we 3D printed in our Advanced Manufacturing Facility."

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He said the firm had put a lot of effort into looking after the staff at home, some have been liberated by it some have been feeling lonely. He said they have tried to be flexible in the way the staff have worked with shift patterns and working hour changes.

"We have briefed all our suppliers too, not telling them to do it, just saying this is how are coping and they are free to follow that. Many have done that. Its a team effort nationally. It's all about 'we and not me'.

"We are a business with long term contracts and we are delivering to our customers significant support and services. Our customers' feedback has been good.

"We have some natural advantages here, we don't have people crowding onto the Tube to get to work and few of our employees use public transport therefore we are operating well. Our people know we are important to the economy and make a valuable contribution through exports for the work we do with allied nations and UK partners.

"But one good thing is that this kind of crisis brings out the best in people and we have seen that."