I am writing to you in light of the prime minister’s announcement on Saturday that England would be entering a second lockdown on Thursday.
I fully appreciate that this was unwelcome news to many of us, especially coming as it does after seven months of restrictions on our activities. You will have noticed, however, that universities, like other educational institutions, are in the fortunate position of being exempt from most of the strictures of this lockdown.
Broadly speaking, we anticipate continuing largely as before. We will have to close to the public and so our museums will have to close, but libraries, gardens, the Arboretum and Wytham Woods will remain open. Unlike in March, we do not anticipate closing University buildings, though those who can work effectively from home are encouraged to do so.
We will continue to offer a mix of in-person and online teaching. I know that some staff, especially those aged over 60 or in vulnerable categories, may be anxious and so may wish to rethink, with departmental support and agreement, their particular mix of face-to-face and online teaching. Examinations will continue to be administered in a COVID-secure setting, and, according to HMG, students will not be permitted to travel home.
The prime minister also mentioned an extension to the furlough programme. We are looking into this and will provide more information as soon as it is available to us. We will continue to adapt our policies in light of national guidance and will constantly update the relevant pages of the website.
Thanks to the extraordinary commitment and detailed planning of colleagues all across the collegiate University, we have been able to welcome back all our undergraduate students, and 75% of our postgraduates have also started in person. While the experience is not what any of us would have wanted, I think we can all take enormous pride in the extent to which we have been able to continue the educational and research mission of the University in spite of the pandemic. It is precisely because of this planning that we are able to adapt to the latest national developments without disrupting the work of the University.
I would like to pay particular tribute to those colleagues and volunteers who have established the University’s COVID-19 testing service in record time and with consummate professionalism. They have been assisted by a large cohort of volunteers, initially medical students and later retired GPs, who have operated our Early Alert Service that has enabled us to keep the pandemic under control. The data clearly reveal that, whenever an outbreak occurs, the college steps in to support students in isolation and prevent the transmission of infection. The overwhelming majority of those testing positive have been undergraduates (88%; postgraduates make up 8% of positive tests and staff 3%). If you would like more information on our test results please see the test results page. While the trajectory of the national and international figures is quite alarming I would like to reassure you that the level of infection within the University remains stable. There have been no cases of classroom transmission or student-to-staff transmission at Oxford, and none nationally, of which I am aware.
As you know, our academics have been leading the global search for a vaccine and for therapeutics to treat the virus. They have been advising government, designing apps and evaluating tests. We hope there will be further opportunities for more of us to be involved as we launch FACTS (Feasibility and Acceptability of community COVID-19 rapid Testing Strategies). This is a trial Oxford has developed with the Department of Health and Public Health England. Initially the test – a Lateral Flow Test – is being trialled in two colleges and one department but, if it proves effective, we will roll it out across the University. If we do so, there will be many opportunities either to volunteer to trial the test, or to volunteer to help with the logistics of the trial. The point of the test is to identify people who have the virus but are not exhibiting symptoms in an effort to prevent their spreading infection.
As a small gesture of appreciation, and in an effort to ensure that everyone gets a good rest at Christmas, I’m happy to tell you that the University will extend the Christmas closure so that it will begin on Saturday, December 19, and run to Monday, January 4. Monday and Tuesday, December 21 and 22, will now be two additional holidays so that you will have a full two-week break. I know that colleges will make their own plans and the demands of work across the collegiate University mean that not everyone will be able to take these particular days off, but I very much hope that everyone will be able to take an extra break as close to Christmas as possible.
When the national lockdown began on March 23 we never imagined that, seven months later, we would still be in partial lockdown and facing the prospect of further restrictions. Yet here we are. We must draw on deep reserves of patience and resilience as we find strength in community, support in family and friends, pleasure in helping others less fortunate, and meaning in knowing that the mission of our University has never been more important.