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Responding to COVID-19

What we did to support our students, staff, and the wider community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of the Annual Report and Accounts 2020/21.

A student wearing a face mask in the Library.
A student wearing a face mask in the Library.

Supporting our students

Throughout this most challenging year, we have sought to support our community at all stages.

Our central message throughout the pandemic has been ‘Be Safe. Be Kind. Belong at Bath’. It has taken a real community spirit to support our students and staff and to deliver the best possible education, research and innovation. Partnership working has been key, not only amongst teams within the University, but also the close collaboration with the Students’ Union (SU), public health experts and local organisations.

Most of our students returned to Bath in September 2020 and we supported those travelling from overseas to quarantine safely.

To support students who needed to self-isolate, our Accommodation, Hospitality, Events, Retail and Security teams created a COVID-19 hub and new notification system. This ensured we could transport students to testing sites, in addition to providing free, nutritious and varied meals; a laundry and postal service; and games, activities and treats to keep people entertained. Our team of Student Living Ambassadors also regularly checked in on self-isolating students in University-managed accommodation.

To support wellbeing we also launched two new apps: Umii (an online network connecting Bath students with similar interests); and Fika (an app that provides tips to users to help maintain mental fitness).

Supporting students’ mental health has been a particular priority. In addition to the regular activities of our Student Services, Security and HR teams, we invested in a new 24/7 service ‘Be Well – Talk Now’ to support students at any time by phone, video call or live chat from anywhere in the world, including in multiple languages.

By late November we began rapid testing for students and staff both on campus and in the city. This was significant in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 as well as enabling students to return home safely during the winter travel window.

For students facing financial difficulties due to COVID-19, thanks to the generous donations of our alumni and friends, we were able to offer more non-repayable bursaries to those most in need via our Student Hardship Fund. From January 2021 we offered a rent rebate for students in University accommodation unable to use their rooms because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Supporting our staff

The Vice-Chancellor visiting the face shield PPE production room.

For our staff, 2020-21 was a particularly difficult year too: for those who have remained on campus throughout; those on furlough; and those working from home.

We provided a range of additional support to colleagues, including equipment to enable homeworking and new mental health and wellbeing initiatives. For staff furloughed under the government scheme, we topped up the 80% contribution to pay all furloughed employees 100% of their basic pay, including pension contributions.

Engaging with our community has been vital, and we have ensured our communications are timely and relevant, including via new staff and student COVID-19 guidance web pages, video and e-mail updates, and regular virtual town hall events. We have also sought the views of students and staff through surveys at regular intervals.

Despite the many challenges over this past year, we are incredibly proud of the strength of our community and the efforts of all staff and students in supporting one another.

Helping our local community

Playing a useful role and adding value in our city and beyond

A year of change and upheaval around the world has highlighted not only the need for international collaboration, but also for the strengthening of our ties with people, groups and organisations close to home in Bath and the surrounding areas.

The University has long worked with partners from local government, education bodies and other Bath-based groups, but the past 18 months has led to greater interactions with partners including Bath & North East Somerset Council, the Royal United Hospitals Bath (the RUH) and Public Health England.

Using our expertise

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen direct work by our community to produce and supply vital PPE to local hospitals and healthcare workers, with 200,000 items being made by staff within the Faculty of Engineering & Design, while local business 4Ground made a similar number using designs developed at Bath. Items made in secure labs on campus ranged from eye protectors and face shields, while our colleagues worked with local sewing groups to create medical gowns.

The 70-strong project team, including Dr Alexander Lunt, Professor Richie Gill, Dr Elise Pegg and others has been recognised with several local award nominations and wins, and our Chancellor, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, recognised their efforts at a special event held in July 2021.

Dr Alexander Lunt said:

The project has been an incredible insight into the collective team spirit within the University to pull together and help those in need. The number of face shields produced is staggering. We would like to extend our thanks to all the volunteers, staff members and donors who selflessly worked towards a highly worthwhile cause.

We are honoured to have been able to assist those working on the frontline taking care of our community.

Helping by offering up our spaces and facilities

We also offered up our facilities. City-centre university accommodation at the John Wood Building, normally used by undergraduate students, was made available for free to RUH doctors, nurses and staff in need of somewhere to stay close to their work, or while isolating from their families. A total of 62 en-suite rooms and four flats were made available, allowing staff to keep themselves and our community safe during challenging times.

Areas of University city-centre buildings, including Carpenter House, were also redeployed as local testing sites in the autumn, providing accessible spaces in central Bath to carry out vital NHS testing and support services.

Sharing and applying our expertise in the Sciences and Engineering

Professor Andrew Preston in the Milner Centre.

Throughout the pandemic, academics from across the University have played an active role in helping the scientific community, policymakers and the public understand more about the virus and its many effects on our health, society and economy.

From the Milner Centre for Evolution, infectious disease and vaccinology specialist Professor Andrew Preston has fielded daily interviews for national and international media helping the public to understand more about COVID-19, vaccination, and variants. Professor Preston has collaborated with ThermoFisher, one of the world’s largest biotech suppliers, and has also used his expertise locally in setting up a testing facility at Clevedon School.

Elsewhere, regular analyses from microbial evolution expert, Professor Ed Feil, and modelling from mathematical biologist and member of Independent SAGE, Dr Kit Yates, have been reported on nationally and internationally. Dr Yates’ contributions to iSAGE have been influential in informing COVID-19 policy debates.

In Chemistry, Dr Asel Sartbaeva’s innovative research into vaccine ensilication, which is in the process of being commercialised, highlights the challenges of cold storage for COVID-19 vaccines. Throughout the pandemic, she has also been providing ongoing advice to the Kyrgyzstan government on their vaccine programme and has worked on initiatives to increase vaccine uptake among the local population, including in collaboration with UNICEF.

Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern joined the National Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme and led an international project with partners in Africa to track COVID-19 via wastewater in cities.

Dr Jim Stone of the Department of Physics has developed new medical devices based on optical fibres that could provide doctors with real-time images from deep inside a patient’s lung. This is also in the process of being commercialised and will hopefully lead to a large-scale clinical study.

From the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, Dr Despina Moschou is finalising a world-first handheld rapid COVID-19 test with gold standard accuracy. This work has generated international interest as well as local collaboration with Bath’s Royal United Hospitals and the formation of a new spin-out company.

Sharing and applying our expertise in the Humanities and Management

Global Public Health Professor Harry Rutter, from the Department of Social & Policy Sciences, has been part of SAGE’s Environmental and Modelling Group (EMG) since May 2020, providing timely advice to government, including leading on several SAGE papers. Since November 2020, Professor Rutter has been co-chair of the Group.

In psychology, Dr Jo Daniels was awarded the Vice-Chancellor Engage Award in recognition of the impact of her research looking at the effects of COVID-19 and lockdown on people’s mental health. Her work has been widely cited, including forming part of a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) briefing note for policymakers.

Similarly, research from Dr Maria Loades that focused specifically on the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health has been used widely, including by the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the Department of Education, and NGOs including Barnados and Outdoor Play Australia. Also from Psychology, the re-deployment of the behaviour change website ‘Germ Defence’ in response to COVID-19 by Dr Ben Ainsworth has led to the site being accessed over 600,000 times from 170 countries, in addition to 30% of English GP practices having alerted patients to the resource.

From the School of Management, Professor Christos Vasilakis’ data collection and computer simulation has been used to influence the configuration and operation of vaccination centres, including locally in Bristol, to ensure vaccination processes worked optimally with capacity. Finally, widespread dissemination of Dr Timothy Hill’s work of how conspiracy theories spread, including about 5G masts and COVID-19, has generated new international research collaborations.