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Durham University

University and City: Growing together

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Huge change, a huge effort

(15 April 2020)

Covid-19 has meant huge changes for everyone. Here, our Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge explores how we are supporting the fight against the pandemic, locally and globally. 

The past few weeks have been some of the most unusual and challenging many of us have faced in our lifetime. In our places of work, of study, and in our home and family lives: we are all having to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

Here at Durham University we have had to make huge changes to the way we operate, all with the health and wellbeing of our community and the communities of which we are part as our top priority. We have moved all teaching and exams online, closed many of our buildings – sadly including our museums and visitor attractions – and asked most of our staff to work from home.

We invited students to leave Durham early for the Easter vacation and have advised them not to return after Easter. We have also had to postpone this summer’s traditional graduation ceremonies; though, knowing how important these are to our students, we will make sure that as soon as we can our Class of 2020 has a graduation experience to remember, with Durham Cathedral as our base as usual.

Supporting key workers and services

But, despite all this change, I am proud that we are also lending our expertise and facilities to support local communities and the national and international battle against coronavirus.

Our technicians are manufacturing visors for NHS staff, our bioscientists are helping with coronavirus testing at James Cook University Hospital and our mathematicians are analysing patient data so medics can identify and treat patients at risk more quickly.

We have loaned qPCR machines to the NHS to speed up testing, donated thousands of aprons, masks and other personal protective equipment to the health services and made some of our car parking spaces available to key workers.

With many of our students away from Durham, we are accommodating ‘critical workers’, who would otherwise be unable to commute due to shift patterns or distance, in some of our Colleges; and we are working closely with local public and emergency services to ensure a joined-up approach.

Supporting health and well-being

We have also been supporting health and wellbeing: much good advice is available to all through our website; one of our IT staff has started running free dance fitness classes online; and one of our trainee vicars is both supporting Anglican patients in James Cook University Hospital in person (having been trained to do so safely) and connecting patients of other faiths with their chaplains via her smartphone.

Putting our research expertise to use

Many of our researchers are using their particular expertise to support the fightback, including Dr Steve Lindsay, who is investigating whether sniffer dogs could be trained to detect the virus. Elsewhere, colleagues have offered advice on working from home, coping with loneliness and how to avoid falling victim to the increased scams and fraud taking place during the outbreak.

Students doing their bit

I’m very pleased to say that our students are playing their part too, both in Durham and elsewhere. Two students helped to set up and are now helping to run the Durham City Mutual Aid Facebook group, which has around 900 members; a postgraduate who also plays rugby for Scotland is running street aerobics classes in line with social distancing regulations from her front garden in Edinburgh; and our own YouTube star Jack Edwards (192,000 subscribers at the last count) is contributing to StudyTube, a YouTube project featuring daily videos to keep students and pupils educated and entertained while schools are closed.

We have also been encouraging students to shop locally while in lockdown to support local businesses at what we know is a very challenging time for the City’s economy.

Our global community

The Covid-19 crisis has also reminded me how far the impact of Durham University reaches through our graduate communities. Members of our alumni community are doing great things in many areas of the response effort, at home and overseas. Locally, Handcrafted and REfUSE, two organisations founded by Durham graduates, are helping to feed people who would otherwise be unable to buy food or who cannot leave their homes. Globally, alumna Rebecca Webster’s work on improving public adherence to quarantine measures was included in the WHO’s Global Research Roadmap as an essential reference for dealing with the virus.

There is much more to say that space does not allow. But we remain keen to do more. If you have suggestions, please email: coronavirus.information@durham.ac.uk.

But for now, I wish good health to you and your loved ones. Please stay safe and stay in touch.

This article was first published in the Durham Advertiser.