Wednesday 7 October 2020

All staff and PGR students email

Covid-19 update for our community

Dear colleagues,

I am writing with an update about Covid cases in the University community and how we are handling them in close collaboration with the City Council Public Health team.

As you may now have seen, we are using our Covid website to share information about the number of active coronavirus cases reported within the University community. We share the same information within the University and with the City Council Public Health team, with the aim of being open and transparent with you all.

These web pages - under our Stay Smart, Supportive and Safe campaign - also contain all other information on our response to and management of Covid-19. They should be regarded as the key information resource for staff and students. I would urge you to ensure that both colleagues and students are aware of the website.

Support in place

We have worked carefully over the last months to put in place support for staff and students who test positive for Covid, and for those who need to self-isolate. As a reminder to staff, here is the guidance for staff and for managers for letting the University know if you are self-isolating.

I want to give particular thanks to the Student Hub and our Test and Trace teams for all their work with our students. 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 recognise that self-isolation is a community-spirited act intended to keep others safe. Our commitment and duty is therefore to give good support to students who need to self-isolate. We are committed to daily person-to-person contact to make sure all is as well as it can be and have a range of online resources available to students from the University or via our students unions to support their wellbeing.

We are also committed to ensuring students have access to essential provisions and services (food, medicines, laundry and other staples). While we can deliver this most straightforwardly to students on campus, we need also to support students off campus. So I am delighted we have been able to set up a new partnership with the supermarket chain, Morrisons, which will provide a 24hr delivery hotline service to students who are self-isolating - more details to follow soon.

Our University community cases: household to household

As of yesterday afternoon we had 113 individuals within our University community who are currently self-isolating because they have tested positive. Of these, the vast majority are students in off-campus accommodation.

Our Test and Trace team, working with risk assessment advice from the City Council Public Health team, follows up each positive case so we can quickly and directly contact those who need to self-isolate.

We carry out this initial stage of contact tracing - focused on household groups and any interactions those who have tested positive may have had on campus - before the national track and trace system kicks in. This was especially important last week when the national system failed to pass many positive test results to the national track and trace service. We have now built up a clear understanding of how to respond to different situations.

Through this work we have now advised growing numbers of students to self-isolate because either they, or a member of their household has symptoms or has tested positive.

We have had no evidence hitherto to suggest any transmission through teaching or learning spaces. The vast majority of cases reported so far appear to be a result of transmission within households.

The City context

I am briefed on at least a weekly basis by the City Council Public Health team on the wider situation in the City of York and in Yorkshire, and chair a weekly meeting of representatives of all the City’s higher and further education institutions together with the Public Health team and NHS representatives.

This intense collaboration has enabled us to share good practice, run repeated scenario exercises and lobby hard for extra testing capacity in the City. The walk-in testing centre which opened last week on Wentworth Way is a welcome result of that collaborative approach.

The wider City context will be an important framework for assessing and reviewing our responses to Covid-19. While there has been a general growth in cases in all areas of the City, York is still better placed than the bigger urban centres in the north of England and has not yet seen additional local restrictions. This may of course change.

Our position

Should this City context change, we will discuss our situation with the City Council Public Health team and we may need as a result to shift from our current position on in-person teaching and other on-campus activity.

As you may know we are currently at Tier One in the UK Government’s classification, offering blended learning provision to students. Higher Tier levels progressively reduce the level of in-person activity on campus. Some universities with higher positive case rates than us, in cities with higher case rates than York, have moved to higher Tier levels. We will keep our situation under close review with our partners in the City and respond as appropriate.

I should stress that the City of York Council has gone out of its way to welcome students back to the City, and more generally continues to encourage visitors and residents to enjoy the City and support local businesses. We are working closely with them to remind everyone that we must all follow safe behaviours to protect each other (‘hands, face, space’; and if you have symptoms isolate and get tested). I will update you should the situation change and let you know what this might mean for the University.

Reflections

There has been a fair amount of media coverage recently that has depicted university responses to the pandemic in a negative light and has unfairly picked on students. At York, we are working hard to respond to the pandemic in a safe and compassionate way, and the vast majority of students are behaving responsibly and are happy to be back at study.

I have been particularly struck - and encouraged - in talking with people around campus, by the calm and up-beat attitudes I have encountered. Staff and students have been very positive about the changes we have put in place to ensure we are complying with covid guidelines, and my observation is that people are responding responsibly and constructively with the new ways in which we must engage with each other, our work, and our studies.

I am sure we will continue in that manner as we head into a challenging winter period. I recognise that staff in all roles are facing unprecedented challenges and are going ‘above and beyond’ their usual roles. I also know this brings strains - so do please look out for yourselves and each other, and if you need support, do approach your line-manager. You can also consult our online wellbeing resources. Your welfare is crucial.

Many thanks to you all for your contributions and your commitment at this extraordinary time.

Best wishes

Charlie