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DHSC – Fit to Fly COVID Response

Rapid service development: a pragmatic approach made policy a reality in less than 3 weeks

In early 2021, when international travel re-opened for members of the UK public, travellers had to meet the Covid testing requirements of various countries to travel abroad and return home. This involved pre-departure Covid testing, using private covid testing providers. The UK government therefore had to spin up a new service to help travellers find and choose an approved private covid test provider that met specific and continually changing requirements.

Problem

The static list of test providers initially published on Gov.uk was not going to be fit for purpose as flights resumed for millions of travellers. The number of providers was expanding quickly, and it wasn’t practical to serve this up purely as a long list. Providers needed the ability to update stock availability and prices in real time. The Department of Health and Social Care needed to control approved providers and reflect policy changes. Citizens needed the ability to search and sort to identify suitable providers based on their varied requirements. The UK government therefore needed a new service to provide this capability, fast.  

GDS, on behalf of the Department for Health and Social Care and laterly the new UK Health Security Agency, appointed Hippo to rapidly develop this new service in less than 3 weeks.   

It became clear that the initially conceived approach of developing the service on the existing GOV.UK website was not an option. The GOV.UK  team did not have the capacity to accept changes in the time frame required in line with their standard governance process and increased workload. 

Hippo had to consider other options. Building this as an independent service in less than 3 weeks was also not without its challenges for a small team: setting up the environment, enabling test provider backend login access, evaluating and implementing off the shelf systems, hosting and maintenance.

Solution

Hippo therefore came up with an approach that enabled the delivery of a new independent service, focused on 2 core principles: reuse and challenging the norm.

The standard approval process can take three weeks to get an AWS environment provisioned in an enterprise environment. We therefore needed to work differently. Our extensive experience of the GOV.UK Service Toolkit meant we were able to leverage the building blocks provided by GDS to rapidly develop and host a service.

Using the Design System we had nearly all the front-end components required, and borrowing from research and design of new table and filter components we’d developed for the Department of Education we were able to create a service to meet the defined policy requirements and user needs. GOV.UK PaaS provided the required hosting (an auto-scaling, fault-tolerant web application backed by caching services) and GOV.UK Notify was used to send the required email/sms notifications.

Building a back-office service for DHSC staff, along with the ability for hundreds of test providers to provide real-time price and stock information presented a bigger challenge. Initially the use of a CRM was considered, but the challenge of deploying and operationalising one within the timeframe wasn’t viable.  DHSC staff were already maintaining a list of provider data on Google Sheets. We realised that the controls provided by Google Workspace could meet the back-office needs: access controls, version control and change history at field level. The web app accessed and cached the data using the Google Sheets RESTful interface . Each test provider was given access to Google Form for their own data to make updates and the website periodically refreshed to reflect the latest position. 

This remarkably simple solution gave a quick and scalable way for providers to update details (including stock and pricing) whilst ensuring a level of control for the Department of Health and Social Care. 

Well considered design of the front end of the site was essential in helping users navigate complex rules and the ever-changing picture. This was heavily informed by user research, rapid prototyping and testing. Filters, focused on what was most important to travellers (most notably location and timeframe), were introduced. 

The service had to continually evolve and keep pace with frequent UK and devolved government policy changes. For example, Country filters were introduced to reflect the different devolved government policies in operation. User research, feedback from providers, and support was also used to refine the service over time.

“Hearing policy changes the night before they were being announced on national breakfast TV meant we had to think differently and act fast.”

Stuart Folds-Duncan, Principal Developer, Hippo

Outcome

From being appointed on 26 April 2021, to successfully going live with the brand new stand alone service on 14th May 2021, Hippo operated the service with a tight team until the travel testing policy was withdrawn in December 2021.

The system supported:

  • Peak traffic of 40k requests per minute
  • Daily changes responding to policy and user feedback
  • Over 700  providers updating pricing and stock in real-time

“I would like to place on record my huge admiration for the Hippo team. Today has been mind blowing how they overcome the issues in record time”

Program Director - Private Provider Testing, Department of Health and Social Care