What should universities do to prepare for COVID-19 coronavirus?

UK public health efforts to deal with coronavirus (COVID-19) may have to shift from containment to delay. Universities have already taken action, but more needs to be done to prepare for potentially serious disruption.

First, because this is Wonkhe and we care about that sort of thing, we need to get the terminology right. The virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes is called COVID-19, for Corona Virus Disease 2019. The virus is closely related to the SARS virus, but the WHO prefers to call it COVID-19 to make it clear that it’s different. However, because it took so long to officially agree the name, it’s usually called “the coronavirus”, which is close enough to correct to stick. It is a coronavirus, and it is the one everyone’s worried about just now.

Get it right

Because this is a very serious matter, and universities are trusted sources of information, we need to pass on authoritative information. The UK Government is providing good, rapidly-updated advice and information on the disease. The Office for Students has a handy summary. The key messages for everyone at the time of writing (Fri 28 Feb) are:

  • good hand hygiene (frequent hand washing),
  • good respiratory hygiene (cough or sneeze in to a tissue, then bin it),
  • if you have recently returned from a specified area and/or think you might have coronavirus, self-isolate until you have contacted NHS 111 by phone or online for advice.

Masks: great for healthcare workers, won’t do you much good.

Your first thought may have been a surgical mask, like the one pictured above. For those of us who are not healthcare workers, and are not infected, there’s almost no evidence that a mask like that will help stop the spread. There’s even some evidence that wearing one when you’ve not been trained to use and dispose of it properly might increase risk. And if you do buy the effective respirators, that makes it harder for the healthcare workers who really need them to get them. So don’t do that.

We now need to prepare. To date, efforts in the UK have focused on containment: testing, contact tracing, and self-isolation. There’s been quarantine for people flown back from China and the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Some universities have had staff quarantined in this way here or in China, and more have had travel plans disrupted. One UK quarantine site was in Milton Keynes, across the road from the Open University. Happily, everyone has now left, clear of disease. These policies work.

Beyond containment, delay

However, it now seems possible that the virus cannot be completely contained this way. Different policies will be needed to delay the spread. That won’t mean containment was pointless: it’s already slowed down infection. Slowing it down gives more time to prepare. It reduces the peak demand on health services, and it moves that peak out of winter. There will be more capacity if the big demand for COVID-19 treatment doesn’t come at the same time as seasonal colds and flu. And, with a bit of luck, the COVID-19 coronavirus will turn out to be a seasonal infection, like the other circulating coronaviruses.

Most universities have already updated their policies on travel and on sickness, and have sent policy updates, reminders, and advice to staff and students. This is the appropriate public response for containment. Those with campuses and teaching arrangements in China will have had to take much more serious action. If the UK response shifts from containment to delay, universities will need to take similar action in the UK.

The value of a timely plan

Some of that action should wait unless and until it is needed. But some action is best done now. It’s easier to hand out remote access security keys and do training on remote working before staff can’t come in, and a “what to do if the whole department is off sick” cheatsheet can’t be written after it’s needed. Now is very much time to be planning for this action, and dusting off contingency plans – or writing them if that homework has not quite been done yet.

Experience in dealing with the impact of the UCU strike will be helpful if some staff are absent for a short period of time. But coronavirus disruption might be on a much greater scale. A handful of primary and secondary schools have already been shut down, and some major events have been cancelled. There will be more of those, plus transport disruption, and movement restrictions. Universities should consider now, if they have not already, under what circumstances they would close – and how they would handle it.

Who needs to be involved? Estates will already be on top of things like making sure there is plenty of handwash. But IT will be key. All IT departments should already have business continuity and disaster preparedness plans. These will have details of how to keep the lights on – or get them back on – if disaster strikes. Not all of that will be relevant to coronavirus, but some of it will, and that could be useful to other departments. And, of course, IT will be crucial if remote working is suddenly needed at an unprecedented scale.

But all parts of the university may be affected and should plan now.

The use of experts

There is advice and guidance available (e.g. from the UK Government, Acas, and CIPD). Some universities will be lucky enough to have staff with relevant expertise. This is easily overlooked by senior management, partly unfairly, and partly because academic experts find it easier to tell you how complicated it is rather than what you should do about it. Finding external expertise may be challenging given the sudden spike in demand.

Panic isn’t helpful, but wise preparation is, and good preparation will put the university in a better place to cope with other disruptions even if, as we all hope, the coronavirus is contained without causing severe problems in the UK.

Full disclosure: the author offers consultancy services on coronavirus (COVID-19) preparedness for organisations.

9 responses to “What should universities do to prepare for COVID-19 coronavirus?

  1. Hi Doug

    Thanks for this useful article. ucisa have a resource called Approaches to Business Continuity which is an introduction for professional services staff https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/businesscontinuity

    It contains prompts to help test University departments’ readiness for significant disruptions such as denial of service attack on the academic network, severe weather or the failure to renew a contract with a major monopoly supply, as well as the kind of situation we are seeing now.

    Best wishes
    Anna
    Anna Mathews
    Head of Policy and Projects
    http://www.ucisa.ac.uk

  2. Thanks, Anna, that sounds really useful and would be great to use as part of preparedness planning.

    I say ‘sounds’ only because I can’t get at it immediately – the registration on the website doesn’t seem to like my email address. But I’m sure that colleagues in universities I’m working with will be able to, as can most Wonkhe readers.

  3. Plenty of hand-wash, and now paper towels instead of virus spreader air blowers are good, IF you can get people to use them, even with signage in a primarily post doc no undergrad environment we still have those that use the toilet yet never flush it, do we trust them to wash their hands? I don’t!

  4. … and a bit later, at a different computer, and I have it without needing a login or anything, so the problem was probably at my end. It is indeed really useful and I’ll be picking this up for future work. Thank you!

  5. @Niel: Yes, encouraging people to wash their hands is an uphill struggle, particularly when facilities are not up to snuff. And if the virus starts spreading in the UK beyond the current containment efforts, we won’t be able to stop it spreading.

    But it absolutely will still be worth slowing down the spread. And this applies to handwashing. Yes, some horrible people don’t even flush the loo, but you can and should wash your *own* hands, and this will reduce your own chances of being infected, and also of inadvertently infecting other people. As well as reducing the chances you get it (which is a pretty good motivation!) it will help slow down the spread, which is good for all the reasons I mention in the article. And every extra person who can be persuaded to do the right thing will help too. It’s not an all-or-nothing.

    And washing your own hands works to reduce the ordinary colds and flu as well as COVID-19 coronavirus, so it’s well worth doing even if containment is ultimately completely successful here.

  6. Hi Doug, Great article, thanks!

    Do you have any specific advice for academics scheduled to travel in the coming weeks and months? The Government and Universities seem reluctant to tell people not to travel. Yet it seems like something we could do to contain the spread a bit more. Have trips lined up to the US in the coming weeks, in limbo about whether to cancel. If not yet, when might be the time to reconsider going anywhere?

  7. Hi Dan

    Thanks for the kind words, and apologies for the tardy reply.

    Where there’s official advice against travel, whether here or at your destination, obviously it would be silly to travel unless you absolutely had to.

    But beyond that, I don’t have specific advice without knowing a lot more about the context, I’m afraid. It comes down to a very individual balance of risks and rewards. In the plus column is why you’re traveling and what the benefits are of going, and in the minus column are the chances of getting caught up in the virus in the place you’re traveling to, and your individual health situation.

    Don’t forget when doing this that even if you don’t catch the virus, you may get caught up in movement restrictions where you’re going, or be required to self-isolate for 14 days after you return.

    It’s also worth thinking through what your alternative would be, if you haven’t already – for some things, delaying for a year or doing it by videoconference would only be a little bit less valuable, and for others you absolutely have to be there in person.

    The current reported number of cases in the US is not very high (466 as of right now) compared to the size of the population (330 million), but there have been significant problems with not enough tests being available in the US, so this is likely to be an underestimate. Moves are afoot to dramatically increase the number of tests available from the hundreds to the millions, so I would guess that in two weeks or so there should be a more accurate picture of the situation there. Speaking very personally, I wouldn’t be keen to go to the US until the level of testing is a lot better.

    As always, with travel to the US, I’d want to make very sure that I had very good health insurance before going. Most universities will have this arranged for their staff, but it is worth double-checking that the cover is in place and that you have complied with any requirements of the insurer before traveling.

Leave a Reply