Wednesday 23 September 2020

All staff and PGR student email

Prime Minister announcement on latest Covid-19 measures - 23 September 2020

Dear colleagues,

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday about the new Covid-19 restrictions in England, my update today shares our latest position and outlines how we are addressing the changes he set out.

The Prime Minister made clear that the Government expects schools, colleges and universities to remain open - stressing the vital importance of children and young people being able to continue their education.

This steer is very different from previous announcements that also raised national alert levels. In yesterday’s briefings, universities were singled out as an essential sector, like schools. We anticipate further correspondence from the Department for Education (DfE), potentially later today, which may give us further advice.

A framework for how we approach these new measures was set out in recent, detailed, guidance for universities from the DfE. This set out a tiering system designed to help us balance our commitment to providing education and research with current or future national restrictions, along with any responses to local restrictions, should any be introduced in the coming months.

We will continue to work in close partnership with the City Council and the local public health team to understand and assess the local situation in York in detail. Any movement from the current situation - Tier 1, involving our current plans for blended, on-campus and online learning - to higher Tiers, which progressively reduce the level of on-campus teaching, will be driven by assessment of the situation with local partners.

New measures: Government changes

Details of the changes announced include:

  • Extension to the places where face coverings are mandatory – including to all retail staff, taxis and private hire vehicles, and all indoor hospitality except when seated at a table;

  • Tighter penalties for non-compliance – including an increase to £200 for breaking the rule of six or failure to wear a covering;

  • Tightening up the rule of six including restrictions on adult indoor sport (teaching at universities was and remains one of the areas of exemption in the rule of six guidance) ;

  • Office workers who can work from home to do so;

  • Suspension of the October trial opening of sporting events and conferencing venues;

  • Bars, restaurants and cafes to offer table service and, along with other hospitality premises, to close by 10pm.

Based on this, we understand the Government’s expectations are of a continued blended learning approach at universities, with face-to-face university teaching in risk assessed environments that minimise Covid risks, and that staff in higher education should go in to work if their presence is needed to deliver research, teaching or campus services.

The Prime Minister also stated new penalties for breaking rules and explained the use of mandatory face covering is to be extended.

In light of these details, our key actions are as follows:

Teaching

  • I think we can all agree that face-to-face teaching is both valuable and fundamental to our students’ educational experience and should be preserved for as long as possible, as long as we manage risks carefully. However, we do need to be ready to change quickly should we need to. We have already shifted much of our learning - well over 50% - online.

We will continue to work within Tier 1, which is based on those radically reduced levels of face-to-face teaching, as part of our blended model. Our Academic Contingency Group continues to plan for Tier 2 and Tier 3. If we had to move to those Tiers, we would pivot our teaching to deliver more online and use face-to-face teaching where we need to protect learning outcomes. We are preparing templates that can be used by Departments to inform students of any Tier changes that might become necessary in the months ahead.

Research

  • Researchers already working on campus, in their risk assessed and covid-secure locations including research labs, are able to continue. We will continue through our Research Contingency Group to assess how research in other fields, in the arts, humanities and social sciences in particular, can continue safely on campus in light of the new national measures.

Should we need to move into different Tiers, access to laboratories will be prioritised to essential research and final year students.

Staff on campus

  • In line with our existing guidance, we want to reiterate that staff who can should continue to work from home, except where there is a need for them to be on campus, either due to their role, or because of their personal circumstances. You can also watch our health and safety briefing about preparations we have made for campus and the start of term.

Recognising some staff may wish to come back to campus to support their wellbeing, we continue to develop more (albeit finite) capacity to accommodate this. For staff continuing to work from home some or all of the time, we would encourage this as another moment to assess their working environment at home.

Face coverings

  • We have also revised and extended our face covering policy. The use of face coverings is now mandated in all shared, indoor spaces. This policy now incorporates additional advice from the Government SAGE report and DfE guidance, and we have worked with Jacqui Hamilton in Chemistry, who is an expert in the area of aerosolisation to further finesse the detail.

The revised policy also addresses the questions we have received from the University community, including clarifying and offering further guidance in some key areas such as exemptions and definitions of face coverings. See also the new campus safety - face coverings information page on our Covid-19 site.

Events and hospitality

  • We are confident that the plans for the social spaces we have developed for students are in line with the new measures, including 10pm closure, and our Student Life and Opportunities Contingency Group has been working very closely with YUSU and GSA on all aspects of managing Covid-secure social spaces.

Sports

  • Sports facilities will remain open, but with new restrictions limiting indoor team sports to groups no larger than six.

Non-compliance

  • We will be continuing our ‘education not enforcement’ approach, to set expectations about individual action, but we will also be communicating the increased penalties for non-compliance, such as police issuing fines, and the consequences students might face through our own disciplinary action.

We are working closely with both student unions to ensure that students are aware of the consequences of not following Covid restrictions. This is a central theme in our online induction module for students, and our new Covid-19 Charter is being widely shared to help everyone understand the importance of working together to keep each other safe.

Our message to students will be clear: if we do not all play our part and follow the guidelines, there is a risk that Covid-19 rates will rise and restrictions could be increased. This could then impact on elements of the student experience, such as face-to-face teaching, sport, campus-based events and socialising, and other opportunities available to our students to make the most of their time here at York.

The introduction of the new restrictions announced by the Prime Minister are, of course, of concern. I know many people will be feeling worried about the trajectory of the virus infection rates. We will continue to closely monitor the situation in York and are working closely with all relevant public health bodies and City of York Council Covid planning teams. It is important to note in this context that York continues to have lower infection rates than other parts of the UK and the county.

You should also know that we are at the heart of the city-wide Covid response. I am on the City of York Coronavirus Outbreak Advisory Board and convene its sub-committee for universities and colleges. And a number of colleagues sit on an operational group bringing universities and colleges together with local public health teams to ensure we are well-placed to respond to any Covid cases we see in the University community.

We have seen much emphasis on testing and the problems in the national testing system. Our approach on this has been to work closely with local partners to put local solutions in place. Through that we have access to testing locally that is not dependent on booking through the national system, we’re pushing hard to get additional test kits sent direct to us in case we need them, and we are making rapid progress in securing a walk-in testing centre accessible to our students.

This is a difficult time. We need to acknowledge that circumstances will demand flexibility and speed of decision-making. We will need to look out for each other and support each other. By working together to ensure that we comply with the new restrictions, and by maintaining close collaboration with public health teams in York, we are well-placed to start our term safely.

Best wishes

Charlie

Professor Charlie Jeffery

Vice-Chancellor