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Vice-Chancellor news

Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff

29 May 2020

Dear colleague,

As we approach the end of another month of lockdown there is at least the prospect of the regulations we presently operate under being somewhat relaxed, although it will doubtless be some time before we approach anything like pre-Covid conditions. As the virus is brought more under control, we can expect that new ways of working and interacting will allow us gradually to re-open the campus in preparation for receiving students, in line with public health advice and social distancing protocols of course. Numbers and activities will be constrained in various ways, and our approach will need to be a mixture of face to face and remote teaching and learning, but if it is possible to open the campus we will do so. As with all coronavirus it is difficult to be certain of anything, but we are assuming that regulations concerning social distancing will remain in place as now, but that the present lockdown conditions will be considerably loosened, although to nothing like the extent we would have expected pre-Covid. On that basis we have produced a document that outlines the principles and working assumptions for our approach to education provision in the next academic year, which is being sent to all Schools on Friday and which we will keep updated as the situation changes.

Colleagues in Estates have been working intensively to assess the capacity of our buildings when we are able to re-open them for teaching. The capacity will inevitably be reduced and building use will involve some of the measures that you may be familiar with from supermarkets, such as one-way systems. Because toilet facilities will be limited for space reasons, we are considering installing extra facilities outside buildings and using ancillary exits to allow one-way circulation. In terms of face to face teaching, the capacity of teaching rooms and indeed buildings as a whole depends heavily on the precise social distancing rules. The equivalent of our two-metre rule is 1.5m in some other countries, and only 1m according to WHO guidelines. Those differences would have an enormous effect and any change would certainly facilitate our planning. As I said in my email of 21 May we are already in the process of re-opening labs and other facilities for researchers, and this process will help to act as a pilot for how to occupy our buildings under these new conditions.

We are also assessing carefully the capacity of our student residences and considering how to work with private accommodation providers to ensure the health and safety of our students. We do have considerable experience of this since several hundred students have remained in residence throughout the crisis, and it is a case of deciding how to scale up the numbers and to what extent that is possible.

We are presently considering how best to open our libraries and allow both students and researchers to use them to access resources that are not available online. If we can provide safe study space for students we will, but as ever the health of library users will need to be paramount. There may well need to be a booking system so that we can ensure numbers do not exceed safe capacity and that social distancing is preserved.

Hygiene measures will clearly be very important. Government guidelines on handwashing remain as relevant now as they were before lockdown, particularly if people are going to be moving around frequently in shared spaces. We will need to ensure that facilities are available, including antiviral gel stations at convenient intervals. There will also need to be a regular programme of disinfecting likely hotspots such as door handles and buttons.

We have an advantage at Cardiff University because we are likely to be able to offer our own testing facility, both to check for the spread of the virus and to assess what proportion of our population has already been infected and may be immune. The science around all of this is not yet fully settled, but there is every prospect that by September there will be greater clarity. If we are able to either screen or sample students and staff who come on to campus, we will have a much better chance of protecting everybody’s health and detecting any outbreaks in time to contain them. We have been able to convene our own expert group, chaired by Professor Andrew Westwell of the School of Pharmacy, who have drawn up a detailed plan and are working closely with government officials on this matter.

We have also benefited from the work of an expert group on face-coverings (face masks). This too is invaluable work, giving us an informed evidence base to formulate a policy in this important area. The importance lies not only in helping to constrain any potential spread of the virus, but to give reassurance to students and staff that we are taking all reasonable steps to ensure their health and safety. We would work with the public health authorities if any positive tests are encountered, complying with the trace and isolate regime that will by then doubtless be in operation.

We will also make arrangements for quarantining students arriving in this country from abroad, and for isolating any cases where infection is suspected.

In addition, we are devoting considerable attention to legal and compliance questions as we work through these complex arrangements. At all times we will need to comply with public health regulations, laws and guidelines, and we will want to work closely with officials from both the Welsh and the UK government. Cardiff City Council will be a key partner, and of course we work hand in hand with the NHS as part of our normal business.

As you are aware the biggest issue we face is uncertainty. All our preparations will be subject to caveat, but we are well placed to ensure a gold standard of precautions and offer incoming students and staff the highest level of reassurance possible in the circumstances.

Finally, as I said last time, many of us will need to continue working from home in order to reduce the load on any arrangements we do make, and we will shortly be providing more detail on how we will facilitate that as a longer-term rather than unplanned emergency measure. I will be in touch again on that as soon as I can, probably next week, and I will also update you on our latest thinking in relation to the financial issues that we face.

With best wishes Colin Riordan