We continue with our focus this term on members of the University community who have contributed to Oxford’s COVID-19 efforts. Angela Unsworth, Domestic Bursar at University College and Chair of the Domestic Bursars’ Committee, played a key role in the college response to the pandemic.
A measured response
From the very beginning of the pandemic, we were dealing with a tremendous number of unknowns. We didn't know how the virus was going to behave. We didn't know how the government would react, or how the University or colleges would respond to an immediate national and international crisis. If the institutions in Oxford were nervous, the people were scared.
This nervousness could have very quickly degenerated into panic, but structures within the central and collegiate University stood us in good stead. Existing collaborative structures in the Domestic Bursars Committee and in the Estates Bursars Committee in the Conference of Colleges were quickly fallen back on, which morphed to represent both the colleges and the University in more joint structures.
Strength through collaboration
After the initial exodus from Oxford, both sides of the University started to collaborate in a way that they perhaps hadn't ever before. That was the great strength of how we managed to get through the pandemic from its beginning to where we are now: everything we did we quickly recognised that we had to do it together.
I think people recognise now that they dealt with something quite extraordinary. Handling a crisis in a measured and thoughtful sort of way really brought out the best in a lot of people. Hundreds of people came together and they gave the best of what they could offer. It was a tremendous effort and telling of the robustness and resilience of close communities.
Our greatest achievement would be for that collaboration to continue now. We achieved things during the pandemic; great things that happen in times of adversity. Programmes of work started within the University that the Domestic Bursars Committee unashamedly gatecrashed; colleagues all over the University have been generous with their time, sharing their expertise and a vision to build back better. The New Ways of Working programme, the Staff Wellbeing programme, the joint working groups on transport and travel and intercollegiate sustainability: we’re all looking at how we can share the load and help push good ideas into fruition, regardless of where they started.
Getting back together as a community
Clearly there is infection still around. As the virus has developed and mutated, it has become more transmissible. People are still very nervous about that, but time is showing that the virus is acting as viruses do. It's becoming, on the whole, less serious. It is sometimes difficult to explain or convince people of that when there are still COVID deaths and, even for the really quite healthy, infection is still making people feel pretty miserable. But feeling miserable and being very dangerous are two different things.
The pandemic has demonstrated to us that there are more ways of being productive than pitching into an office every day, but the welfare benefits and the camaraderie of seeing your colleagues and exchanging fine ideas and ideals alongside the routine interactions of everyday life does make the world go round; we shouldn’t underestimate how powerful these interactions are. We need to be together to get the best out of this – a screen exchange is never going to do it.
Recognising the commitment of our people
There needs to be a wash-up of our COVID-19 response, to judge what went well, what did not. You have to evaluate what you did, how you did it, and whether you would do it differently if you ever needed to again. What we may not capture in any great detail is the immense everyday effort: the really low-level grinding toil that hundreds and hundreds of people put in every day. All the scouts, and all the porters. All the chefs, and everybody who works tirelessly on every shop floor in every college. These are all the unsung heroes that made life as normal as it possibly could be, and kept people safe.