It has only been two weeks since we began seriously to move into crisis management mode, though it seems a lot longer. In that time we have achieved an enormous amount, thanks to the hard work, dedication and commitment of colleagues across the University, and the good sense and co-operation of our students. Everybody has done and is doing their best to continue the education of Cardiff students and to carry out research to the extent possible (which varies enormously across the range of disciplines). As we all know the constraints we are operating under could last for months, and we have little or no control over them. It therefore seems evident that in time, we will move from crisis management to a form of business as usual, even if ‘usual’ means under the conditions of the lockdown world we now inhabit, or something close to it.
The corollary of that is that we need to explore how far we can continue with the range of activities that we normally do and that form part of our strategy as a university. The five main areas we focus on are education, research, innovation, international and civic mission. It is the last of these that I want to talk about today.
Clearly, as with almost all our normal activity, we cannot simply continue as planned in terms of our civic mission. Progress on working with all schools in Wales will have to be paused while they are closed, for example. But as colleagues have risen so magnificently to the challenge of the coronavirus crisis, we can evidence the continuing commitment of Cardiff University to our civic mission, even if in a manner quite rightly adapted to the present circumstances.
First and foremost has been the response of our clinical colleagues in the Schools of Medicine, Healthcare Sciences and Dentistry. All of us have reason to be grateful to them for the work they are doing to help the country cope with this crisis, both by directly working with patients or by supporting in a whole range of ways including by providing training and refresher courses in the essential skills that are required on the front line, such as the use of ventilators, diagnostic equipment and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We also have been donating our supplies of PPE, which we know is such an issue at the moment and vital for the protection of NHS staff treating Covid-19 patients.
We are also working very hard to fast-track final-year students in medicine and potentially in other health-related areas so that they can be registered as soon as possible, and we hope to offer students from earlier years the opportunity to volunteer in the NHS. Students from all disciplines will have other opportunities to volunteer if they wish.
In addition we are coordinating a response to a call from Welsh Government inviting contact from companies and researchers with the expertise, capability and facilities that can support the manufacture of ventilators, and potentially other medical devices likely to be in high demand in coming months.
In response to NHS need we are already making a number of our buildings, labs and halls of residence available as required. Parts of the Cochrane Building are being repurposed into a training facility for NHS staff, and the ground floor of our Dental Hospital is being used by Cardiff & Vale University Health Board to increase its emergency case handling capacity. We may be able to help by providing IT support too.
We can also play our part in the huge research effort that is required to tackle this unprecedented challenge. Colleagues from our School of Biosciences are taking a leading role in mapping the spread of coronavirus as part of a £20m project announced by the UK’s chief scientific adviser. This will create Wales’s only COVID-19 sequencing centre, comprising a team of scientists from Cardiff University and Public Health Wales (PHW). By analysing COVID-19 genomes from Welsh patients the team will be able to track the evolution of the outbreak in Wales, providing valuable information to inform the public health response both here and on a UK-wide level. Our Centre for Trials Research is in discussions about developing treatment trials to support primary care to prevent mild COVID-19 from becoming more serious, and in secondary care to treat serious and critical COVID-19 patients. Finally, working with Cardiff Metropolitan University, Dr Emma Thomas-Jones of the School of Medicine is helping to launch one of the first research projects aimed at gauging UK public attitudes and responses to the coronavirus pandemic was also launched. The researchers hope up to 10,000 people will take part, and those organising the frontline response will get early access to the reports to help inform the measures they are taking.
You may remember that last week I issued a call for volunteers to help contact and support our students who have no choice but to stay in student accommodation through self-isolation, because they are unable to travel or because they have nowhere else to go. I’m very grateful to the more than 120 staff who put their names forward, allowing us to launch this project and let our students know that we are there for them. I also know that many staff and students are working in their own ways to support work colleagues, friends, family and the wider community as we all adjust to this new way of working and living our lives.
Finally, human life consists of more than practical measures, extremely urgent and important though the health crisis clearly is. Many people are thinking of how to ensure that the limitations we face are mitigated by the chance to expand our horizons culturally and intellectually. It was great to see this week how positively the Radio 4 programme ‘The Hidden History of the Mantelpiece’ written and presented by Dr Rachel Hurdley of the School of Social Science was received, for example. I can highly recommend it, if you want to listen.
And as Professor Ken Hamilton (Head of the School of Music) tells, me, since the Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra is unable to give performances at the moment, their world-premiere recording of Michael Csányi-Wills Symphony No.1 is being made available for 24 hours from 19:30 on 27 March 2020 at this link. This is in place of the usual end of semester concert. If you are reading this too late to catch the performance, it will be available on CD in due course.
With best wishes