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Protecting our people and public services against Covid-19 in Saudi Arabia

When Kashif Muneer, Safety and Assurance lead for Serco Saudi Services (SSS), took part in a pandemic-themed business continuity exercise in 2019, little did he know how well it would prepare him for the events of the following year.

In early 2020, as Covid-19 swept the world and our operations in every region, our health and safety experts were among those fighting hardest to keep people and public services safe. When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) entered lockdown, Kashif stepped up to stand between the virus and our 1,800 colleagues who deliver facilities management services for some of KSA’s busiest hospitals.

Today, Kashif’s role has grown to cover all Serco operations in KSA. In 2020, his role focused on the five hospitals we serve in the region of Riyadh, the KSA capital, and another in the city of Jeddah.

Kashif’s commitment to high standards of health and safety is well demonstrated in SSS achieving ‘10 million safe man-hours’, marking four years without incident.

Generally, health and safety standards in KSA are still maturing, and our opportunities to facilitate improvement can be limited, “but our approach is one of the reasons our clients respect and want to work with us,” says Kashif. “We will not compromise on safety, and work closely with our customers to help integrate our procedures into their operations as best we can.”

Kashif also covers the accommodation and commuter buses we provide for expatriate SSS colleagues. In the Riyadh region, we rent four accommodation buildings. All health, safety and environmental considerations are carefully controlled and regularly inspected. Similar provision is made for the buses, including driver training which he delivers himself.

For Kashif, a strong and engaging safety culture is key to maintaining high standards:

“Close engagement with our people is the most powerful tool in our toolbox. For everyone to feel safe, confident to do the right thing and comfortable raising any concerns, there can be no distance between management and the employees in our care. During inspections, I go apartment by apartment, making sure everyone knows what they need to know, and inviting their feedback. They know me well and are always receptive and forthcoming. They all have my number and know they can contact me at any time.”

From April to August, travel restrictions meant that Kashif, then in Jeddah, was cut off from his 1,000-plus colleagues in Riyadh, more than 900km away. Fortunately, there was a strong team on the ground to act on his behalf:

“Our management and teams (Ahmad El Houri, Naved Saifi, Ali Al Aamri, Abdullah Salem, Majed Al Asseri, Amna Shaikh, Nisreen Alazzeh, Raneem Almosalli, House Mother Lorita Quizan and all safety champions in SSS; Laura Kelly, Melissa Ashwell and Carmine Pereira in Serco Middle East Head Office) worked with me to help manage the crisis. In a situation like this, a strong team is critical. We work together like a family – respecting and supporting each other.”

The team’s business continuity experience made a massive difference:

“We knew exactly what to do; there was no panic. Right away, we secured supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and, in our accommodations, segregated our people by their hospital teams and set up isolation rooms on separate floors.”

Communication was no less a priority. In addition to a range of educational and instructional resources, Kashif delivered virtual health and safety briefings, including some on mental health, and arranged for all employees to receive temporary additional benefits and certificates of appreciation.

“We wanted to keep everyone calm and in good morale – to educate them about the situation and reassure them of our efforts to protect them.”

Despite the careful response, factors beyond the team’s control brought some employees into contact with Covid-19. By the time Kashif could return to Riyadh, a number were in isolation. Prioritising his colleagues above himself, he visited them all in person, with appropriate PPE.

“Covid-19 isolation presents significant mental health risks. I needed to speak to our people, to understand their exposure and develop enhanced mitigation, but I wanted to do so in person, to show them we were with them.”

Kashif then implemented additional procedures which helped to effectively eliminate Covid-19 from the Serco workforce.

Now in his new role, Kashif is optimistic about the year ahead:

“For now, we must all continue learning to live with Covid-19, but we improve every day and the future looks promising. We follow Ministry of Health guidelines and continue communicating with our people and keeping them engaged. Educating and encouraging everyone for vaccination is a top priority. Fortunately, we are all on the same page when it comes to health and safety in Serco – not just in KSA but in all regions. From the top down we trust, empower and support one another to do the right thing. When you have that, you can handle anything.”