Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – September 2020

Dear colleague,

First of all may I thank everybody who joined last week’s all-staff webinar, and for the questions you posed. Given the volume of the latter and the time available, we were only able to answer a relatively small number (the most popular) in real time, but we are working through the list and will ensure that everybody’s question is answered in due course and the results published . I feel this way of engaging with one another is a very helpful side-effect of being compelled to work around the coronavirus constraints, and it is surely a methodology that we could use to complement (though not, I would suggest, entirely replace) in-person meetings and all-staff addresses in the future. It is extremely useful to be able to hear and respond to the concerns and questions of colleagues directly, and this is of undoubted benefit in decision-making. This is especially true at a time when universities (like national governments around the world) have to steer a very difficult course between the competing demands of controlling the pandemic, ensuring that other health and wellbeing needs are met (especially mental health) and securing the viability of the institution (or the economy in the case of governments).

In recent days I have been impressed by the way in which the great majority of our students have heeded our requests to ensure their behaviour remains within the coronavirus rules, including the new restrictions that have been in place in the Cardiff area since 18:00 on September 27. I know how difficult this must be at a time when they have a very understandable desire to meet people and socialise. Our ability to administer coronavirus tests to students and staff who are asymptomatic does give us a crucial advantage, and the high throughput of our lab will allow us to screen our own population on a regular basis. I visited the lab myself during the pilot phase and took a saliva test (which was negative). Using saliva as a test medium is easier to administer and non-invasive, and our validation shows that the results are at least as accurate, if not more so, than the swab testing approach. Setting up the lab has been an exceptional feat of effort and teamwork and I should like to thank all those all involved, who continue to work extremely hard to roll out the facility for staff and students who are coming on to campus.

All the measures we have taken are within with Welsh government guidelines. As well as our screening programme,  these include limits on the numbers of people in our buildings at any one time, strict two-metre distancing, the use of face coverings inside University buildings, one-way walking routes, additional cleaning regimes and readily available hand sanitisation facilities. Our aim is to allow our students to enjoy as full a university experience as possible within the coronavirus constraints, whilst ensuring that the risk of transmission is kept as low as possible.

On risk, clearly, the only way to stop the virus propagating is for everybody to keep well away from everybody else. That is clearly neither practical nor desirable for any period of time, and so the challenge is to find the right balance between complete isolation and suppression on the one hand, and allowing the virus to spread more or less unchecked on the other. The measures outlined above do allow a sensible balance, and are widely used throughout the world. We are having to ask students to ensure that in their social life they stay within the rules; if we can all work together to ensure that happens, then we will be able to ensure that the burden that coronavirus places on this generation of students — who have already had to deal with considerable adversity — will be as low as possible. I believe our students recognise that it is in everybody’s best interests to keep the risk of transmission low whilst allowing university life to continue within the inevitable constraints. We are working extremely well with our Students’ Union and are fortunate to have such good sabbatical officers in what is a very difficult year. Clearly, the more we can achieve through co-operation the better for all concerned, and it is good to see our students taking that approach.

Creating a safer environment on campus, as with setting up the screening service lab, has required an exceptional team effort over recent months. On behalf of us all I want to record my sincere thanks to our Estates and Campus Facilities and Staff Safety and Wellbeing teams who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to secure and maintain our campuses and keep many essential services running.  Their continuing efforts to prepare and reopen our campus, to welcome back our staff and students and to overcome the many significant challenges we faced along the way have been exemplary and show outstanding commitment. Coupled with the exceptional work and dedication of our academic colleagues — who have invested time, effort and ingenuity into developing new ways of delivering blended learning, including assessment — we have, I believe, done everything possible to give our students the best opportunities at a very difficult time for all.

Meanwhile, I am happy to report that the core business of the University does proceed, despite the pandemic. One of the potentially most exciting scientific discoveries of all time was announced by a group led by our own Professor Jane Greaves of the School of Physics and Astronomy. Having already played a leading role in the detection of gravitational waves, our Astronomy department has now made a discovery which could indicate the presence of microbial life in the atmosphere of Venus. Proving the existence of extraterrestrial life is some way down the line, but if the conjecture is correct — that the presence of phosphine in the planet’s atmosphere is the result of microbial activity — the implications for our understanding of the universe would be profound. Of course, if a mission to Venus were to disprove the hypothesis, and perhaps show some other, non-biological natural process to be the source of the gas, then the search would continue. But in the meantime this story has resonated round the world and I would like to congratulate Professor Greaves and her group for what is already an extraordinary achievement. If you are interested — and it is an absolutely fascinating story — you can read about it here.

I want to finish by apologising for sending the previous email in English only, and others with English before the Welsh. Before the crisis I had moved to Welsh first on all occasions. I am afraid that the hectic nature of communications over the last few months led to some disruption to this process, and I want to assure everybody that the use of the Welsh language continues to be a high priority and that the previous approach has been re-instated. Nobody has complained to me, so thank you for your forbearance and I am glad to be able to take this course of action without needing to be prompted to do so.

With best wishes,

Colin Riordan
Vice-Chancellor