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.