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Vice-Chancellor news

Thank you, Christmas wishes, COVID-19 Omicron variant

17 December 2021

Dear colleague

Having been a Vice-Chancellor now for 15 years, I took a look back at the first Christmas email I wrote to all staff at the University of Essex back in the distant days of December 2007, and my main impression was of how short it was. Back then we were awaiting the results of RAE 2008, much as we are all agog for the latest REF 2021 results in May 2022 today. There the similarity ends, but I thought you might appreciate a shorter email so I will do my best.

You will be very aware of the rapid spread of the omicron variant and of the uncertainty that it generates. A recent announcement from the Education Secretary Jeremy Miles allows schools to delay in-person re-opening next term, depending on how the position develops. Thus far we have been told to plan for in-person teaching to continue as it is now into next term, but we have made contingency plans for the different scenarios with which we have become familiar during the course of the pandemic. We cannot know exactly what the effect of the continuing steep rise in coronavirus infections will be, but we do know that we will be able to make rapid adjustments to adapt to whatever position we find ourselves in come January, because we have done this before and will not be taken by surprise. As ever, we will act in proportion to the risk and will always comply with guidance from Welsh Government and the NHS.

On that note, today’s update from the First Minister stopped short of raising the alert level here in Wales, but did ask all of us to consider how we socialise over the Christmas period. It also reintroduced some control measures that will affect how we work, and these will be considered alongside the Welsh Government’s infection control framework for Higher Education.

Because this is such a rapidly spreading variant, and new information is coming in all the time, we will be keeping the situation under review throughout the closure period and will be prepared to make and communicate any decisions in good time for the re-opening on 4 January if necessary.

As I write we are only just over half way through the month, so apart from the above there is not very much to update you on. As you know, UK government has been distracted recently and there has been a change of Education Secretary. The long-heralded government response to the Augar review has therefore been delayed until the New Year, but there is little indication that any proposals would dramatically affect us in Wales (though no guarantee of course). The other imponderable remains the question of association to Horizon Europe; that of course depends on agreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which in turn depends on a whole range of factors. The biggest decision will be if and when to accept that association is dragging on too long if no agreement is reached and an end is not in sight. In some ways that is a more difficult position to be in either than the desired outcome which is association, or the alternative which is non-association and the resources being deployed to fund domestic alternatives.

In the meantime it is heartening to see a Cardiff team working with Arizona State University and AstraZeneca to investigate the mechanisms that may underlie the very rare incidences of thrombosis that have been observed in recipients of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Professor Alan Parker and his colleagues’ work is shining a light on an ultra-rare side-effect that unfortunately had significant political and public health consequences, and will be invaluable in helping to avert potential similar effects in future. Similarly, Cardiff University is leading on the Wales arm of clinical trials led by Oxford University to assess whether people at increased risk of severe COVID-19 would benefit from taking anti-viral tablets. These trials have the potential to give us another potent weapon in the fight against coronavirus, and are a further example of the outstanding contribution Cardiff University continues to make in helping to combat the pandemic.

As we approach the end of the first term of this third academic year affected by coronavirus, it is worth reflecting on the extraordinary resilience that the great majority of our students have shown. I realise the difficulty in balancing the differing strands of opinion and preferences amongst our students for in-person and remote study, and in finding the right academic balance in blended learning and teaching. Keeping the needs of both staff and students in mind, it will be important for us to provide the kind of spaces that will allow hybrid teaching and learning to take place easily and effectively, so that students and staff can hold a class simultaneously in person and online. That will take time, and in the meantime I am very grateful to everbody for their patience and commitment to putting our students first and recognising the very adverse circumstances that many of them have faced since they started their studies with us.

Finally, a huge thank you to you all for the energy and time you have dedicated to this university and our mission this year. It may seem a slightly more distant prospect at the moment, but this wave too will pass and I am sure that we will weather it well, as we have done so far. I know that the consequences of coronavirus have placed very great demands on everybody and I would urge people to use any backlog of leave they may have owing to them, work requirements allowing. I do hope as many of you as possible will be able to have a proper break over Christmas and New Year to recharge batteries and I’m very aware of how important this is. Some will need to help keep the University running over the holiday period and to you, a particularly heartfelt thank you. I wish all of you a peaceful Christmas, and whatever the challenges, may 2022 be a year of hope, health, prosperity and renewal for all.

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda

Colin Riordan