Wednesday 14 October 2020

All staff and PGR email

Covid-19 update Wednesday 14 October 2020

Dear colleagues,

As you may have seen, the Government has introduced a new three-levels system aimed at tackling the rising number of Covid-19 infections nationally. Different parts of the UK have been categorised as 'medium', 'high' and 'very high', with different, and escalating restrictions associated with each level.

The situation in York

York remains at the medium level, meaning no additional restrictions have been introduced at present, so the local community should continue to follow the current national measures in place. However, York's infection rate is rising and, together with our partners in the City, we remain vigilant.

We know our level might change and might change very quickly, and that further restrictions might be introduced. That is why we continue to stress the need for all of us to play our part in following guidance to slow the spread of the virus and to prevent new restrictions in the future.

We are working very closely with the City Council Public Health team, the local NHS and other HE/FE institutions in the City to understand the local pattern of data. I get regular and detailed briefings which helps us understand the cases we are seeing within the University community, and informs our responses.

You can find out more from the City of York Council's website, where the Director of Public Health has again indicated that the spread in the City is mainly through social contact and households mixing indoors and not adhering to social distancing rules.

Our campus tracking and support

The city's analysis mirrors the University's own tracking data, too. We publish our current case count on our Covid-19 webpages. We discuss every case we see in the University community with the City Council Public Health team. All the information we have for cases in our student and staff community demonstrates that all but a very few cases are derived from household to household transmission. We have had no evidence hitherto of transmission in learning and teaching settings.

On that basis, expert local analysis from the City Council Public Health team - confirmed again this week - does not recommend change in our current in-person teaching provision. I note that recently published minutes from the Government's SAGE committee on 21 September recommend further reduction in in-person teaching. Our current local analysis, supported by the City Council Public Health team, continues to support the blended model of teaching and learning, though of course we will keep the situation under review.

The campus track and trace system we've put in place is responding in a much faster and directed way than the national track and trace system.

The completion of our self-isolation forms triggers the communication of a range of support provision and other actions, from tracing contacts through to making sure students can get essential provisions and that they are supported in their general welfare and wellbeing.

We do now have a large number of students now in self-isolation and have put arrangements in place for students (whether on-campus or off) to get essential provisions and to support their emotional well-being. We are offering daily points of contact so we can understand any additional needs students might have, and are providing a range of online resources for mental health and well-being and - working with our Students Unions - recreational activities. I am very grateful to all the staff - more than 250 - who have volunteered to help us support our students in these ways.

I'd like to reassure you that any member of our community who has tested positive has their case investigated thoroughly by our own contact tracing team and the public health experts at the City Council. In the vast majority of these cases, no further isolations beyond individuals' immediate household groups have been required because the City Council's Public Health team is confident in the risk mitigations we have in place.

Working together

These partnerships and close working relationships are critical elements in the ongoing assessment of our current blended model of teaching and learning. At this moment, we remain at Tier 1 of the Department for Education (DfE) 'four tier' model, reflecting the analysis of our local circumstances as described above.

We are, of course, aware that some institutions have moved from Tier 1, which will reflect the local circumstances of those institutions and the specific advice they have had from local public health teams. There is no one trigger point to move to the next Tier. We may need to respond to nationwide policy shifts, but moving through the Tiers may also be based on an assessment of our local circumstances.

Our current local assessment includes an analysis of:

  • the impact of self-isolation amongst students on planned face-to-face provision (and of staff in self-isolation, though very few are in that situation);

  • an ongoing assessment of public health risk, based on the protective measures and mitigations we have in place at this University;

  • the evidence we have about the pattern of virus transmission we have built from the cases we have seen in the University community;

  • and the local context and collaborative assessments of public health risk within the city of York as a whole.

Our Student Unions and Trade Unions have been an integral part of our partnership working. Our Student Unions have played a huge role in the development of our approach, policies and guidance, and in our support for students in self-isolation.

We also have very significant, regular and ongoing consultation with our Trade Unions representatives, who have - from the outset of this pandemic - been deeply engaged in our responses.

I have heard that some may think that we haven't been working as we should with union representatives. But we have, in fact, a very strong and regular engagement, with representatives of all of our campus unions meeting me once a week, meeting our HR team at least weekly, and meeting with our Director of Health and Safety once a week, with detailed discussion of risk assessment. I doubt that there is more intensive engagement with union colleagues in any other university in the UK, and am grateful to union colleagues for finding the time to give such high quality insight and input.

This close working has enabled trade union colleagues to raise valuable and timely feedback as we have worked through developing risk assessments and protocols. We are continuing to listen and respond: for example, we have changed some occupancy numbers in some teaching spaces and we have changed some rooms based on feedback about covid-secure measures. This is also why we introduced further guidance and individual risk assessments, to consider the additional measures that may need to be taken to minimise risk.

A reminder, as well, of our University Covid Safety Form for reporting issues, where we can react quickly about social distancing or Covid secure arrangements on campus (eg number of people in a space, missing signage or sanitiser, room layout).

Our position

I have been clear that we want, if our local risk assessment allows, to maintain our blended model of teaching and learning because of its importance to our students and staff, and we continue to see such value in face-to-face learning, as well as in the human interaction for our students in the classroom setting. And I should reiterate that we have not seen evidence of virus transmission hitherto in the classroom setting.

We are therefore continuing our model of blended teaching and learning - but do so in the knowledge that all departments have plans in place to reduce levels of on-campus activity should we need to.

We will continue to review our current in-person teaching and other on-campus activity, and do all that we can to keep you informed of national and local developments. In the meantime, please do continue to regularly check the Covid website pages for any further updates to ensure you stay well informed. And above all, stay safe and well. Thank you for all your hard work at this challenging time.

Best wishes,