HER ‘utter commitment’ to pioneering a way to track Covid levels in our community has earned a Newton Abbot woman the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Jackie Tucker, aged 60, from Kingsteignton, receives her honour as a team leader for the Environment Agency and for services to the environment and to young people.

She said: ‘My reason for accepting the award is that I did this as part of a fantastic team of people who were inspirational at times of the pandemic when there wasn’t much to look forward to.’

During the pandemic, she led the on the ground activity supporting a partnership with the Joint BioSecurity Centre to develop a non-invasive way of tracking Covid levels in the community through analysis of waste water at the Ada Lovelace Building on the Exeter Science Park.

From managing the quality of the data to recruiting more than 40 molecular scientists, the range of activities she led on was significant and complex.

Her work was essential for identifying hotspots to support track and trace and identify silent outbreaks in communities of vulnerable people.

She was a leader in this project, guiding a team of dedicated scientists to set up all the processes and systems to support variant tracking to support the government response.

The lab was set up from scratch at the start of last year by the Environment Agency and the UKHSA.

‘It meant recruiting people with the right skill sets and these were often young, newly graduated students, some of them locally from Exeter University, who had molecular biology experience as this was the key element so that the team members would understand and know what we were analysing in the water samples.

‘My main part in it all was building that team.

‘By and large they were young people, not all but most, inexperienced and it was their first proper job. It was amazing to work with them. We were right in the thick of it.

‘It came with some sacrifices on their part as they were not able to spend as much time as they’d like with their families

‘It was inspirational to work with them and their commitment to getting the job done and their involvement with the work was amazing.

‘It was a fantastic thing to be part of, very exciting. At times it was difficult as you can imagine. Some of the team caught Covid themselves.

‘I felt very privileged to have had this opportunity and getting the BEM off the back of it, well I was not expecting that at all and that was the most amazing part of it.’

She paid tribute to the whole science community that had worked tirelessly to come up with new solutions to battle Covid, which included the development of the vaccines.

‘The news coming through that the vaccines were coming online really spurred us on and made us feel part of the gifted teams of scientists who were trying to kill of this horrible disease that came amongst us and that we are now learning to live with.

‘There were certain wins along the way that kept us going, knowing how the data was being used, knowing that we were finding pockets of people who were asymptomatic and picking up that the virus was there and they weren’t being tested because they did not have symptoms.

‘That was quite key to how we then dealt with things, unfortunately it meant some places got shut down locally because the results we were getting through backed this.

‘The results we were getting were ahead of the Track and Trace so we could see where the disease was in the population because it showed where a person without symptoms was shedding the virus.

‘It was a fantastic opportunity to make a big difference to people’s lives.’

Part of Jackie’s citation was for her work with young people. She helps train Teign School’s Ten Tors teams although she says nobody mentioned this in the citation.

Mother of three boys she is also proud grandmother of four grandchildren, two of them born the day before her 60th birthday in March this year – Violet and Florence.

‘It was the best 60th birthday present I could have wished for,’ said Jackie/.

BEM for ‘incredibly demanding work’

THE citation for Jackie Tucker’s BEM honour states: ‘This project was incredibly demanding, and she displayed utter commitment and drive to help the partnership achieve its target of 2,500 wastewater samples per week.

‘Her achievements undoubtedly reduced harm and provided those managing the Covid response with valuable evidence with which to make decisions.

‘Over her 20-year career with the EA, she has been both a scientist and leader of our bathing water testing programme.

‘This high-profile work provides data on the health of the UK beaches throughout the summer and her role has ensured the UK complies with its duties to protect them.

‘This hugely important data set helps to classify UK beaches and helps to keep people safe by understanding if water bodies are safe for bathers, supporting the local economy and driving investment in our environment.