Wednesday 9 September 2020

All staff and PGR students email

Covid-19 update Wednesday 9 Sept - Government guidance update (SAGE)

Dear colleagues

As promised as a follow up to my message last week, I am writing to update on the latest official advice we have seen, this time from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies Committee (SAGE), which was published last Friday.

You will also have seen the announcement overnight that, alongside local-level measures in places like Bolton, the UK Government has introduced a new, general restriction on social gatherings of more than six people from different households in England.

We expect the SAGE advice and further advice on the six-person rule in educational settings to be reflected in further Government guidance for universities which we hope will be published this week.

For now my focus is the SAGE report. This is a comprehensive and a very useful document, and our Contingency Groups are now examining the report in detail to inform our own planning. The report rightly outlines the scale of the challenges, but we already have in place - or are progressing at speed - many of the recommendations here at York.

To share some of the changes we have already made to support a safe working environment, we have created this video for our staff, with more details of what you can expect when you spend time on campus.

Below, I offer some reflections on the six core themes from the SAGE advice, to identify our work in progress or where we may reflect on our planning and preparation in light of the SAGE report.

Core themes identified by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) report

The focus of the report is around risks of transmission and the impact of local and national interactions. It acknowledges that many universities are well advanced in their plans, but introduces key principles about minimising the impact of local and national outbreaks.

  • SAGE notes that higher education could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight

This call for coordinated national oversight is very welcome, with strengthened links between Government, the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), HE institutions and local public health teams and local authorities. This will support the intensive work we have been doing with partners across the City on local intervention measures and on how we will respond to confirmed cases here or within the region.

The report also acknowledges the challenges with detecting asymptomatic transmission, and whilst noting the risks at the beginning of term, it also draws attention to the end of the first term and when students return back home. This is a key point we need to focus on, which underlines the need to set very clear expectations right from the start, maintain pressure on encouraging responsible behaviours, and to remain vigilant and alert to any circumstances unfolding.

  • Develop clear strategies for testing and tracing, with effective support to enable isolation

As the report recommends, we are already putting in place strategies to support students and staff who are required to isolate, access tests, and engage with contact tracing. We have stressed our concerns over the capacity and supply of tests, so we welcome the call for wider-scale testing and that universities are good locations to pilot both mass testing and new contact tracing approaches. As I indicated on Friday in my last email, we have been working intensively with relevant partners to make sure that we have access to Covid testing capacity in York with quick turnaround of test results, so we can respond quickly to any cases among students or staff.

  • Safe provision of student education needs to be based on a hierarchy of risk

This section asks HE providers to consider the learning outcomes of courses, and student and staff wellbeing, alongside the transmission risks. We have been working to this hierarchy of risk model from the beginning and have put in place a whole range of measures, including a balance of online and in-person interaction and mitigation measures such as physical distancing, use of face coverings and how we can maximise ventilation. Given the complex interactions that we know take place across campus, we can anticipate that guidance may vary during the term, in line with the latest public health advice. We will need to be prepared to adapt what we do at short notice as guidance evolves.

  • Accommodation and social interactions are likely to be a high-risk environment for transmission to occur

The report is clear that communal settings - social and accommodation - are likely to pose a higher risk of transmission than well-managed teaching environments with good mitigations in place. We are already tackling these risks, such as providing a range of new covered outdoor spaces along with semi-outdoor marquees and yurts as safe locations on campus for student recreational activity. We have made these arrangements so that we can provide those vital social experiences that are part of university life for students, in a safe and manageable environment. We know that one of the key concerns students have been expressing is the need to be able to make friends and combat loneliness. We know clear communications to promote safety and hygiene practices within households will be critical, and we are not underestimating the importance of encouraging the right action, responding quickly to any inappropriate behaviours that pose a threat to safety. We will await advice on how the new 6-person restriction might impact on our plans.

  • Specific strategies to consider the wider physical and mental health of students and staff, beyond COVID-19

Whilst acknowledging that younger students are likely to have less severe Covid-19, I am pleased the report recognises that universities also have staff and students who may be more vulnerable. This chimes with our own determination to support members of our community who are concerned and that we have flexible policies to guide everyone. The report also refers to the importance of maximising the uptake of vaccines, which has also been a focus of our planning and preparation. We do welcome, nevertheless, the acknowledgement that additional support is likely to be needed to provide capacity beyond already stretched mental health services.

  • Communication strategies are a critical part of minimising transmission risks

Finally, the report identifies the importance of communications and the benefits of the approach we have taken throughout our planning and preparation to involve staff - including representatives such as our trade unions - and our students. How we share guidance and encourage each other to take collective responsibility in support of our community will be critical in helping set expectations. The report rightly emphasises that guidance is more likely to be adhered to if people understand the reasons why, so our Stay Smart, Supportive and Safe campaign - launching this week - has been designed to simplify information and convey why action is important.

We are working closely with Student Unions to share communication plans, ensuring we complement - and not duplicate or contradict - our collective guidance and advice. We are also contributing to City-wide campaigns, which aim to encourage responsible behaviours as well as provide reassurance to residents about everything we, York St John and both FE Colleges in the city, are doing to mitigate risks as we welcome students back to our City.

For now, as we reflect more on the SAGE report and await further Department for Education advice, let me thank you for your commitment and hard work as we continue our preparations for the start of a new academic year.

Best wishes


Professor Charlie Jeffrey