Gill Aitken: responding to the national restrictions

What a difference a fortnight makes. Just two weeks ago, we were checking whether the University needed to change any of its arrangements for teaching, research, student support and accommodation because additional restrictions (‘Tier 2’) had been announced for Oxford. We were relieved to find that our planning over the summer and the experience of the first weeks of term meant that we needed to make very few adjustments.

But as so often during this pandemic, and almost before we could say ‘Abracadabra’, we learned about the new stronger restrictions to apply nationally from Guy Fawkes night: a second national lockdown for England, to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The policy underpinning these new restrictions was to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while enabling education to continue. Universities were asked to stay open, with appropriate safety measures in place. Once again we went through our plans and considered what had worked well or not so well in recent weeks to test whether we needed to change tack. Colleagues in our Michaelmas Coordination Group, drawn from departments, colleges and services, had of course spent the summer planning for the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 and had created detailed and careful arrangements to deal with what we were now facing. But we needed to check whether now was the time to increase some of the safeguards or to change how we were operating. It was a relief (but not a surprise given the huge amount of effort that had been expended) to realise that the plans in place were robust enough both for the new restrictions and for the safety of our community.

Key to this reassurance was the use and application of the University’s Business Continuity Planning (BCP) stage framework – drawn up during the early stages of the pandemic. The University has used this framework to make transparent decisions on how we should operate. We have throughout this term been at “Stage 2”, meaning that we are open in line with social distancing restrictions for our core activities. This aligns with the Department for Education’s (DfE) ‘Tier 1’. The current University guidelines have ensured the minimal amount of disruption to our research activities, and that students are able to receive a mix of in-person and online teaching. Many staff are working from home but buildings are open and “COVID-19-secure”.

Guided by the framework, and reassured by the experience of the first weeks of term, Silver Group agreed that there was no need to move to a different stage of the University’s BCP framework, or DfE tier level (which would have meant restricting important activities). Departments have been advised that in light of the latest lockdown those staff who may feel vulnerable (particularly those over 60) may wish to revisit their plans for teaching and so some activities may have been moved online following local decision-making. Information about the University’s response stages and how they map onto DfE tiers is now outlined on the Contingency Planning page of the University’s COVID-19 site.

There have been some changes to operations as a result of the new restrictions, notably the closure of our museums and collections to the public, as well as the temporary suspension of sports. However, in line with what our students need and deserve, in-person teaching can continue in COVID-19-secure facilities, supplemented by online lectures and resources. Research activity also continues as before.

I understand that some colleagues are anxious in the light of the current situation and our COVID-19 vulnerability self-assessment tool is a useful and easy guide to your own risk and how to manage it; the safety and wellbeing of our staff, and our students, continues to be our absolute priority. I appreciate that the constantly evolving nature of the pandemic is resulting in huge levels of additional work for colleagues across the University. Thank you for all you are doing to keep the University open.