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Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update for staff and students - 24 November 2020

Dear Students and Colleagues

Key points

  • The second period of national lockdown ends next week and England will return to strengthened, tiered regional restrictions. The statuses of Devon and Cornwall are expected to be confirmed on Thursday
  • Cases are low at the University but we must remain vigilant and continue to protect each other and those around us by following the COVID-19 guidelines
  • We will begin mass testing of students on Monday 30 November to support those who wish to travel away from the University during the 3-9 December ‘student travel window’
  • Any student who wishes to have a test will be able to get one, regardless of whether they have COVID-19 symptoms
  • Test bookings will open on Wednesday for students based in Cornwall and on Friday for students based in Exeter
  • We will move all but essential teaching online after Friday 4 December
  • Those planning to travel overseas must pay special attention to the relevant restrictions, and request a HALO PCR test if they are required to obtain a negative test to travel
  • We are asking all students to complete our survey to help inform our plans for the end of term and the winter break
  • We are exploring options for additional staff testing and we await further guidance from government on our plans to welcome students back in January
  • Wellbeing support remains vitally important and we have seen many inspiring examples of colleagues and students reaching out to support each other  

Full message

Next Wednesday, 2 December, is the end of the second period of national lockdown, during which the country has been asked to reduce social contact in order to bring down the rate of transmission of COVID-19. Whilst there are early signs that this has had some impact on the spread of the disease, the recent national numbers of cases, of hospitalisations and of deaths are truly shocking. As we move towards the end of 2020 and towards a new year which we hope will bring the possibility of widespread vaccination and a return to the freedoms we all previously enjoyed, we must remember that many in our communities have lost loved ones and for them, and many others, life will not return to normal. We still have much work to do together to reduce the number of people who will contract and suffer from the effects of COVID-19 over the coming winter months, during which we know that our NHS will be placed under enormous strain.

At the University, the number of cases remains low, whilst across Devon and Cornwall cases have fallen slightly since last week. The Devon County Council (DCC) dashboard, which includes data up to 21 November, shows that there were 855 cases in the preceding seven days for Devon and 385 cases in the same period for Cornwall. Exeter has recorded 207 of the cases in Devon over the last week. We know from working with our Public Health England (PHE) colleagues that around 12% of those cases are attributable to the University. There remain very few cases linked to our Cornwall campus.

Our daily update of new positive cases in the University community can be found on our COVID-19 statistics webpage. This should be viewed alongside the official published data.

We know from the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that when national lockdown ends next week, England will return to three-tiered regional measures. We will not know until later this week which of the three tiers Devon and Cornwall will be placed into, and so we cannot say with confidence which additional restrictions will apply on our campuses. I will update you in my message on Friday. It remains clear however that the more we can work together to continue to suppress the spread of the virus, the lower the restrictions we will face, and the greater the relative freedoms we will have.

Testing before the end of term

The Prime Minister also spoke about plans to allow some easing of restrictions for a short time over the Christmas period. We have agreed to be part of the government programme of mass testing for students, to support them in making plans to spend time with loved ones, and for those who wish to travel away from the University. Preparations for this are progressing well. We are creating new rapid testing sites on our Streatham and Penryn campuses and from next Monday, 30 November, any student who wishes to have a test will be able to get one, regardless of whether they have COVID-19 symptoms. We will open the booking systems for these tests on Wednesday for students in Cornwall and on Friday for students based in Exeter. We will email you directly to let you know when you can book a test appointment and I will update you in detail in my message at the end of the week.

We encourage you to take a test. Knowing your COVID-19 status means you can travel to be with loved ones with a reduced risk of passing COVID-19 to them. The test involves a simple mouth and cheek swab and gives results within 24 hours.For those with particular concerns, for instance those planning to spend the winter break with people who are clinically vulnerable, it is best clinical practice to take two tests three days apart and we will support you to do so. Those who have previously tested positive during Term One should consider carefully whether they wish to be re-tested. It is possible that the test could pick up remnants from your earlier infection.

Any result will only give you an indication of your COVID-status at the moment you take the test. It is extremely important to follow existing guidelines on hygiene and social distancing before and after getting tested to avoid infection.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you will be required to self-isolate for 10 days, as will your close contacts. We will support you throughout this period.  

We are also developing a policy on making tests available for staff members who are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and I will be able to say more about this on Friday.

In the meantime, anyone who experiences even mild symptoms of COVID-19 - a high temperature, new continuous cough or a loss of taste/smell – should self-isolate and immediately request a test via the Rapid Response Hub. If you share a household with someone who has tested positive, or who is self-isolating while they await test results, you must also self-isolate.

Travelling away from the University

The government has created a ‘student travel window’ from 3 December to 9 December and we strongly advise those students who wish to leave the University for the winter break to make arrangements to travel between these dates. This approach is designed to allow students to travel soon after the national lockdown ends when there should be the lowest risk of transmission. We now know that we are likely to see the introduction of significant additional national or local restrictions which may impact the ability to travel to and from affected regions, or to use public transport outside of this designated period.

To support students to travel, we will move all teaching online from Friday 4 December, with the exception of those teaching activities which require specialist spaces or facilities, or clinical placements where online provision is not possible.

Overseas travel

We know that many of our students will have plans to travel overseas for the winter break. Those wishing to do so should check the government’s ‘Travel advice: coronavirus (COVID-19)’ guidance for restrictions relating to their destination and also review the guidance on ‘Entering the UK’ which may affect your return. Some countries may require you to have obtained a negative COVID-19 test before you enter the country and you should be aware that results from the Lateral Flow Devices provided by the government for the mass testing programme are not sufficient as clearance for international travel. Our HALO tests are fully recognised for international travel and we will make these available to any students travelling overseas. Please contact the Rapid Response Hub directly to book a HALO test in advance of your planned departure.

Staff members planning to travel overseas during the break should also familiarise themselves with any travel restrictions between the UK and their destination. It is always possible that these restrictions may change whilst you are overseas and it may not be possible for you to work remotely from overseas if you are unable to return to the UK. We will share further guidance for colleagues shortly.

Tell us about your plans

I encourage all students to complete our survey which asks about your plans after the end of the current national lockdown. The responses we have already received are invaluable in informing our planning, supporting our discussions with local partners and ensuring we have the right support in place for those who are planning to stay with us over the winter break.

Returning in January

We await further advice from government on their plans to allow students to return to university in January and I will update you as soon as we have new guidance. However, yesterday the Prime Minster also referred to plans to support mass testing to help schools and universities to stay open following the winter break, and we look forward to welcoming students back to our campuses in the new year. Our January examinations will be online from 4-11 January and the timetable for these will be released this week to those students scheduled to sit exams. Live teaching, including a blend of in-person and online delivery, will begin as planned for most students in the week following assessment week, subject to further guidance from government.

Your wellbeing

Once more I want to close by reminding us all that now more than ever we should pay special attention to our own wellbeing, and be mindful of the wellbeing of those around us. Support is available via our COVID-19 wellbeing web pages.

This week I would like to say a special thank you to our Rapid Response Hub welfare team in Exeter and student ResLife team in Cornwall who have been contacting students who have tested positive for COVID-19, to provide practical and welfare support as well as signposting to our wellbeing services. The teams have received fantastic feedback from students, and I pay tribute to their compassion and continued engagement throughout. Their dedication and support for other members of our community has been inspirational throughout and has made a huge difference to those who have found themselves in isolation. Although this may be only one small part of our support for those who have needed assistance, it is emblematic of the ways in which we have come together to help each other, and one of the hundreds of things that have made me proud to be associated with the University of Exeter throughout this difficult time.

Best wishes

Mike

Mike Shore-Nye
Registrar and Secretary