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COVID-19 update 1: Autumn term 2020

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Message to all colleagues from the co-Chairs of the COVID-19 Major Recovery Team, Professors Julian Park and Dominik Zaum


Dear colleagues,

Hopefully you remain safe and well and you are settling into the new academic year. It goes without saying that we have never before faced a new term in such challenging circumstances as these. Following the return of students to campus, we wanted to update you about various developments.

We have so far been informed of a small number of positive test results for members of our community. A new COVID-19 dashboard is available online with information about numbers of cases and how we are responding.

Major Incident Team to coordinate response to positive cases

A Major Incident Team (MIT) has been created specifically to manage our response to positive cases. Co-chaired by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Parveen Yaqoob and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Paul Inman, it is meeting on a daily basis and working closely with the local Health Protection Team.

This group will coordinate closely with the existing Major Recovery Team (MRT), which we co-Chair. The MRT continues to coordinate the University's overarching response to this pandemic.

Reporting positive test results

Both colleagues and students must advise promptly of a positive test result for COVID-19. For colleagues, you must tell your line manager as soon as possible, providing as much information as you can about:

  • when you became symptomatic
  • when you had a test and when you received the results
  • whether and when you had been to campus within the 48 hours before you started displaying symptoms, and your activities while there
  • anyone on campus with whom you may have been in close contact (as defined by government guidance).

This information is vital so we can take swift action to minimise the risk to others and to liaise with external bodies such as Public Health England (PHE) and local authorities. Any information provided to your line manager will be shared with your Head of School or Function, HR and with a small number of colleagues who are responsible for managing the University's response to any outbreaks, or potential outbreaks, of COVID-19 in our community.

If you are a line manager and someone in your team informs you that they have tested positive for COVID-19, you should promptly inform your Head of School or Function and complete a new online reporting form for line managers. Beyond these necessary reporting mechanisms, please keep this information confidential. There is further guidance for managers on the Staff Portal.

Securing on-site testing facilities - reporting symptoms

We have been working closely with Reading Borough Council and the Department for Health and Social Care on plans to establish a testing centre on campus for staff, students and the local community. This is challenging, given the national demand for testing, particularly in areas with far higher infection rates than Reading. We are working on several options and will keep you updated on progress.

To support local coordination efforts and better assess demand for testing, PHE has asked us to collect information on the number of staff and students with symptoms, and who may be seeking or struggling to obtain a test. If you have symptoms of coronavirus and are self-isolating, please inform your line manager who will complete our new online form to assist our efforts. A similar request has also been made of students living in private accommodation, to augment information already collected for those living in Halls.

If you are unwell, you should keep in regular contact with your line manager for support and guidance. There is also information on the Staff Portal about what to do if you are unwell and need to self-isolate.

Planning for an outbreak

Of the confirmed cases reported so far, any related cases have been restricted to single households.The national guidance states that a cluster or outbreak is defined as two or more related confirmed cases outside a single household or enclosed unit. However, PHE experience with schools and large organisations nationally has led them to identify five or more related cases outside a single household or enclosed unit as the point of escalation when an Incident Management Team will be assigned. It is at this stage that Reading Borough Council will assign an IMT to work with us on implementation of our outbreak plan.

Following a revised approach by PHE to the role of universities in communicating with close contacts, we are finalising our outbreak plan in partnership with Reading Borough Council. The plan is based on these principles:

  1. The University will work with the local authority and PHE in the event of an outbreak and an IMT will be created, with a statement about the outbreak published jointly by the University and Reading Borough Council.
  2. Individuals directly affected by the outbreak will be contacted in accordance with any guidance provided by the IMT.
  3. All colleagues and students will be told about the nature of the outbreak and any specific guidance about immediate actions, as advised by the IMT.
  4. A mobile testing unit on-site should then be assigned to facilitate testing of specific groups or whole cohorts, depending on the nature of the outbreak.
  5. All colleagues and students will be informed about any restrictions on activities that are to be put in place, likely duration of restrictions and the plans for any necessary further escalation.
  6. Daily briefings will take place for Heads of Schools and Functions to support management of the outbreak in specific areas.

Very few of the positive cases confirmed so far have had contact with teaching settings. It has become clear that seating plans will greatly assist our efforts to identify close contacts, and avoid whole classes having to self-isolate. As part of our outbreak preparation, we are working on arrangements to support teaching colleagues to create seating plans. We will share these by early next week.

With the rise in cases nationally and locally, alongside outbreak planning for this term, the Autumn Term Teaching Group is also looking ahead to arrangements for both the spring and summer terms. We are also awaiting further guidance that the government has indicated will be available on planning for the Christmas holiday season.

We anticipate that we can share more detailed information about outbreak planning next week.

The University and the Rule of Six

Information was shared last week on the Staff Portal about implementing the government's ‘Rule of Six'. If you haven't already, please take the time to read it, as it will have an impact for all of us.

Our focus is on keeping our community safe while supporting important University activity, particularly as students arrive or return to campus. This includes the delivery and support for timetabled face-to-face teaching in line with our blended approach and research that can only be undertaken on campus. It also includes the wider provision of support services and facilities needed to offer our students the best possible experience and ensure colleagues who need to be on campus are supported too.

For the vast majority of meetings, events and other activity, our ‘virtual-first' approach will continue for the whole of the autumn term. This will be reviewed regularly to ensure we are reflecting the most up-to-date government requirements and we will let you know of any changes.

Keeping our students informed

RUSU is actively involved with both the MRT and MIT, and we continue to communicate frequently with students. The most recent email, sent today, is available on the Essentials.

Recently, we wrote a joint letter with RUSU to our students about the steps we must all take to protect our community. While we know that the majority of students are following the guidance to keep everybody safe, we are aware of some incidents where students have been breaching government regulations. We are investigating these and will take action in accordance with our disciplinary procedures, including fines, in addition to any action that may be taken by police.

In case you missed it...

Here are some other updates that have been shared recently on the Staff Portal:

Thank you for taking the time to read this email - there is a lot of information to take in. Both our staff and student community continue to respond to this situation with pragmatism, common sense and compassion, and your continued support is hugely appreciated.

Kind regards,

Julian and Dominik

Professor Julian Park, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education and Student Experience)

Professor Dominik Zaum, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation)

Co-Chairs, Major Recovery Team

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