The last four months have witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of public celebration and gratitude for the NHS. For ten weeks we clapped in the streets on Thursday evenings; local people and businesses made regular donations of food and drink to hospital staff.

We saw extraordinary collaborations as schools, universities, fashion and engineering companies alike all turned their efforts to making and donating PPE for NHS frontline staff.

The NHS has frequently topped the list of the UK’s most cherished institutions but its response to COVID-19 has taken this appreciation to new heights, surpassing even Danny Boyle’s vision of the NHS in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Extraordinary challenges

Huge numbers of clinicians, staff and helpers from across the country have worked alongside the NHS to deliver against extraordinary challenges against the odds in record time.

The Nightingale Hospitals were completed in a matter of weeks, whilst the four Lighthouse Labs have created, from a standing start, the capacity to analyse tens of thousands of samples a day in an extraordinary collaboration between the Department of Health, the NHS, universities and the private sector.

Closer to home, almost all GP practices were able to continue supporting patients through the rapid rollout of telephone and online appointments, a transition which suits many patients and GPs, but where relatively little had previously been achieved in years of effort.

Celebrating achievements and commitment

As the NHS celebrates its 72nd birthday, it is obviously right that we celebrate its achievements during the COVID-19 crisis, the extraordinary humanity shown every day by clinicians and staff and its commitment to delivering the best patient care in often challenging or unpromising circumstances.

I’m proud to be working in the NHS after a career working alongside the NHS and other parts of the public sector as a management consultant. I’m also proud of the people who work in the 15 Academic Health Sciences Networks (AHSNs), of which I’m the national Network’s chair.

Traditionally, the AHSNs work together on collaborative change programmes to support the NHS to adopt new services and technologies. As the COVID-19 crisis hit, we were coming to the end of a two-year period in which we have delivered seven national programmes that have benefitted nearly half a million patients, and also in which we have supported over 4,000 companies to position their services in ways better understood by the health system.

Responding to the pandemic

But in mid-March we completely changed the focus of our work within the space of a few days to support the COVID-19 effort. All AHSNs supported the rapid rollout of online consultation technologies to well over 90% of GP practices. We have supported care homes in their management of deteriorating patients. We have helped to procure and distribute over 100 different product ranges of PPE and over 150 of our staff returned either to the frontline NHS or to support the central effort to increase testing capacity.

I have personally spent the last few weeks developing a programme within the Department of Health and Social Care to identify and put in place the innovative testing solutions and the flexible capacity we will need to take us into autumn and winter. Huge numbers of people are involved. It is demanding and energising work, much of which is being conducted remotely and without the shared spaces and real time team working familiar from my days as a management consultant.

Learning from the crisis

As we move beyond the first phase of the crisis, different but perhaps even more significant challenges remain.

We will need to address the huge treatment and diagnostic backlog in all non-COVID-19 conditions, whilst many staff are exhausted and will need support and downtime over the summer. The crisis has also highlighted the need for team work that goes way beyond normal partnerships: we have to look seriously at the issues in residential and domiciliary care, for example, and the demand on our mental health services will probably be higher than ever before.

As catalysts and drivers for innovation, the AHSNs are well placed to support this next period of challenge and further change. We will be working alongside the NHS Confederation and the Health Foundation as part of the national NHS Reset conversation to help the system to learn from the crisis, understand the innovations which did and didn’t work and help clinicians and staff to select and implement the innovative solutions to best support them in the next phase.

All of us in the AHSNs wish the NHS a happy 72nd birthday. We look forward to deepening our support to our partners in health and care and industry in their efforts to keep us all safe and healthy as we go into the next phase of this extraordinarily difficult period.

Follow Piers on Twitter: @piers_ricketts