Following my initial communication yesterday, I am writing to provide a further update following the Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday of a four week lockdown in England.
30 second summary:
New restrictions and University decision-making structures
Cases amongst our University community
Developments on testing
Implications for our University (essential reading)
New restrictions and decision making-structures
The new restrictions will start on Thursday 5 November, pending a vote in the House of Commons, and are due to last until Wednesday 2 December. Unlike the previous lockdown, the Prime Minister made clear in his address that this time schools, colleges and universities will remain open.
I am acutely aware that this announcement will have impacts on all our lives, potentially in very different ways. It is distressing that this new lockdown will again keep families and loved ones apart for another period of time. I appreciate it is a worrying time and I am sure we are all hopeful that these measures will make a real impact in tacking the pandemic and will allow families to gather at Christmas.
We have made it clear that we will be following Government legislation and public health guidance, whilst also carefully considering our own specific circumstances here at the University. Our goal is to do the very best we can for our students and staff at this time despite the difficulties we are all facing. We recognise that individuals’ personal circumstances vary, and as a result cultivating a community of care and compassion is more important now than ever.
In all our planning at Silver and Gold Emergency Management Teams (EMTs) over the last few weeks, we have been closely monitoring local Covid rates in Bath and cases amongst our University community.
The Gold EMT, which I chair, has been meeting frequently to make decisions about how we operate safely as a University. In addition, Silver EMT meets daily and considers whether it should recommend to Gold that the Higher Education Tier of response should change, taking into account conditions in the local community, our own data, feedback from members of the University, Government guidance and expert advice from Public Health England and local public health officials in B&NES. We want to operate a safe campus for all members of the University, and health and safety remains a priority.
Cases amongst our University community
Although we were informed last week of some historic cases of Covid-19, which have marginally affected recent daily figures, the number of new student cases is relatively steady. The number of our students in self-isolating households (either symptomatic or asymptomatic) has been steadily declining over the last two weeks, from just over 1,500 on 17 October to just under 880 yesterday. We are hopeful this trend will continue and we’re monitoring these indicators daily.
Since the beginning of Semester One, we have had only 11 staff members who have been affected, 5 of whom had not been on campus recently and of the 6 remaining, we investigated in liaison with Public Health England, and found no evidence linking these to teaching or related activity. This compares with more than 500 students who have tested positive for Covid-19 in the same period, which gives us a high degree of confidence that the measures we have taken are protecting staff.
Adherence to the rules amongst our community has been very strong in teaching and research settings, for which I am very grateful.
Our students and the SU have been very clear about the importance of structure, including in-person learning, for our student community. This is even more the case for those who have had to self-isolate and therefore haven’t had as much opportunity to meet coursemates.
Developments on testing
As previously highlighted, we have now invested in our own batch of Covid-19 swab test kits so we can ensure members of our community are tested rapidly if they have symptoms. In addition, we have also bought two Randox analyser machines and cartridges that enable us to do our own tests, further building the resilience of our testing regime.
Implications for our University
We will continue to monitor the situation carefully. For the next few weeks, we are planning to follow Government advice that universities should remain open, and will be taking daily advice from Public Health England to ensure that we are taking all appropriate steps necessary to follow this guidance safely. This has the following implications for our University community:
We will continue our blended approach of in-person and online learning, strictly following our Covid-secure rules on social distancing, wearing face-coverings, and operating enhanced ventilation and cleaning regimes.
We have already been looking at what we have learned over the last few weeks in relation to learning and teaching, including through student surveys. We are exploring how we might evolve our approach to maximise student experience and deliver our commitments, whilst giving additional flexibility. We will working closely with Departments on our approach.
We will continue to lay great emphasis on mental health support, for staff and for students. Personal tutoring and frequent contact between academic staff and students will be particularly important during this period.
Our research laboratories will remain operational wherever possible, strictly observing Covid-secure measures and risk assessments. Research remains a core part of our mission and researchers, including staff and doctoral students, who need to do research work on campus should continue to do so.
Student facing services and key operational staff will clearly need to play their continued, critical role in supporting our students on campus and in University buildings, again stringently following our safety measures.
Colleagues in other departments, not involved in key student-facing services, in-person teaching, research or essential campus operations, should work from home if they can do so effectively. However, we remain open, and colleagues who need to work on campus should continue to do so.
We will be contacting those colleagues on furlough, or potentially returning to furlough, this week with further updates.
We will be sending an update to all of our students, including an explanation of the new restrictions.
We will avoid closing down buildings wherever possible.
I have asked our colleagues in Silver EMT to review any further implications of the new restrictions, including on sports and extra-curricular activities and in University accommodation.
Thank you to all members of our community for your continued support and we will update you further if there are any changes.
With warm best wishes,
Professor Ian White, Vice-Chancellor and President