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Testing is key to keeping offshore covid-free

The Covid-19 pandemic has created multiple challenges for the energy sector. Here we find out how oil and gas reacted to the ever-changing situation and why asymptomatic testing is key as we approach winter.
Securing helicopter operations was one of the biggest challenges in the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Navigating UK offshore oil and gas operations through the Covid-19 has been described as Oil & Gas UK’s finest moment, delivering leadership, strategy and proactivity that secured continuity of supply.
Now, moving from the protect stage to recovery, with winter and increased demand looming, what needs to happen now to keep critical operations going and shift focus back towards a Sector Deal and the industry’s Net Zero challenge?
“We were within days of losing all heli operations,” Trevor Stapleton, health and safety director of Oil and Gas UK (OGUK) said, reflecting on the early days of Covid-19 when its seriousness had yet to be fully understood.
“That was our biggest concern and challenge. There was a lot of hard work in that week ensuring helicopter operations continued. Mobilising quickly to reassure pilots from the four heli companies by implementing a categorisation of passengers allowed flights to continue.
“Today, we also have passengers wearing face coverings and perspex screens separating crew from passengers, as well as organising temperature checks and health questionnaires, which have all helped to keep the offshore workforce moving.”
OGUK HSE director, Trevor StapletonTrevor Stapleton, health and safetydirector of Oil and Gas UK.Picture: OGUK
But guaranteeing an adequate workforce to maintain critical operations was testing, as numbers dropped from 12,500 to 7,500.
“Our industry never stopped,” Mr Stapleton said, proudly. “The production levels you see today are broadly the same as we were achieving last year in the industry. We kept operating through Covid and managed to do it safely and efficiently with lower manning levels, with single cabin occupancy, limiting the numbers of people at one time in canteens, shift systems, and other measures.
“Essential work means you have to maintain security of supply and we have to continue working. There was drilling and decommissioning work that needed to happen. Heavy lift barges come along about once every two years, so we had to carry on,” he said. “If we hadn’t stepped up to lead, I don’t think we would have seen the same level of production.”
The outcome was testament to collaboration, communication and quick action across the industry, Stapleton said. The industry’s vision, flexibility and practicability came into its own.
“What we had was a triple whammy. Demand for oil disappeared overnight with the lowest gas prices we have seen in 14 years. We could have coped with those two, bearing in mind 2014 and what we had gone through. We were just starting to see green shoots of recovery and things levelling out – but then came Covid-19.”
The Pandemic Steering Group (PSG) formed in March made the biggest impact, he said. It brought together operators, contractors, spectrum, from service companies, catering, hotels, police, unions and the HSE, with subgroups formed for specialist focus.
“OGUK stepped up to the plate when someone had to take leadership,” said Mr Stapleton. “We stepped into the vacuum in an emerging crisis. We had weekly comms briefings, weekly operator and contractor meetings, access to the OGA and the government, regular meetings with BEIS and spoke to all our members for the latest updates to know what was happening, and they knew what we were trying to achieve.
“It worked well because we got into action quickly, got the right people on the PSG and worked with the subgroups.
“While all this was happening, companies were still working. They still had a business plan to follow and hydrocarbon production to get on with. If you start to lose the workforce because they might be showing symptoms, it impacts on the processes offshore and that impacts on the maintenance and, ultimately, impacts on the running of the installation itself.”
Robust procedures at heliports, temperature taking, testing, developing a Safe Return to Work process with the unions for the SNS and Aberdeen, a strong focus obviously on safety and critical maintenance and safe operations and ensuring a system of safe havens and hotels and transport all worked.
“It is never going to be perfect. But we kept operating by keeping people apart, hand washing, trying to keep single cabin occupancy. That is our challenge. We are now at 9,000 offshore and the challenge is around sharing cabins and how we do it in a safe manner.”
Communication was first class and, even when operators disagreed and took different approaches, communication remained strong, Stapleton said.
“We had great support from the OGUK board and the joint council. In the early days, regular emails were sent to our CEO Deirdre Michie from the members, saying ‘This is great. We are getting the information we need.’ We had great support from the supply chain, government and operators and the HSE.”
Now the focus is on maintaining supply throughout winter while living with coronavirus. Top of the agenda is achieving asymptomatic testing for all offshore workers, with constant lobbying to the UK and Scottish governments for blanket asymptomatic Covid-19 testing at local NHS test centres for its workforce spread across the UK; but never to the detriment of frontline NHS workers or care homes.
“Offshore is a unique environment. Our figures from 2019 show that we meet 46% of total UK energy demand. If the UK energy supply is interrupted, nothing works.
“We are asking if we could trial this with the NHS. Our industry could be the guinea pig. Given the criticality of meeting the energy demands of the UK, we think our industry is a special case and should have asymptomatic testing.
“If we could use NHS test centres local to where our workers live, they could drive to their local testing centres – say in Norwich – the go back home and wait a couple of days for the results before travelling offshore.
“It is not a panacea, but it is another barrier to go with temperature checks, questionnaires and other precautions to help us through the winter period.”
Covid-19 has been a huge distraction, Stapleton said. “We need to get drilling and our big projects back,” he said. “For example, the FPS (Forties Pipeline System) shutdown has been deferred until summer 2021. The supply chain was depending on that and trying to hang on. That’s another impact on the industry.
“We are starting to live with Covid-19 and get back on our feet, but the issues with oil demand and gas prices that continue to affect our industry mean we may soon see an acceleration of cessation of production (COP) for some North Sea assets.
“We are part of the Net Zero solution – carbon capture and storage, blue hydrogen, green hydrogen, electrification offshore – this is our focus as we continue on the recovery phase of our agenda.”