Go back

Researchers to work through lockdown

 Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Universities and labs in England will remain open under new national restrictions

Academics have welcomed what many see as an overdue second national lockdown for England, and said they are well prepared to continue with research during the next round of restrictions.

In March, the country’s shutdown to stem the spread of Covid-19 closed many facilities, forcing thousands of researchers to adapt to working from home.

But, following prime minister Boris Johnson’s 31 October press conference to announce a second lockdown for England, the outlook for many researchers looks different this time.

Imperial College president Alice Gast and provost Ian Walmsley told staff in a 2 November email that they were “confident” they could “continue to fulfil our academic mission in a safe environment”.

The university is one of several now offering coronavirus tests to staff, and it has implemented social distancing and home working in line with the rest of the UK sector.

“We have…designed all of our research activity to be safe and consistent with social distancing rules—research laboratories will remain open and research staff and students should continue with their current arrangements,” said Gast and Walmsley.

While universities are allowed to stay open during the 5 November to 2 December lockdown, the government is encouraging them to “consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”.

In his press conference, Johnson said universities would stay open, a decision that Nick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute director, said was the right one. He said he hoped that current measures and moving more teaching online would allow universities’ work to continue “without putting either students or staff in harm’s way”.

Research centres outside universities are also planning to continue with work. 

“We expect no disruption to our scientific programmes, because since March we have instigated protocols which keep us Covid secure,” said Dale Sanders, director of bioscience institute the John Innes Centre.

“The [centre] will remain open and we expect only minor changes to our working practices as a result of the new restrictions.”

Funders also look likely to be less disrupted compared with March, when the closure of offices led to some funding calls being scrapped and deadlines being delayed.

“We have put in place a number of measures since March to support applicants, students and award holders impacted by the pandemic,” a spokesperson for national research funder UK Research and Innovation said. They added that staff, including almost all those working on grants, have been “working successfully from home and that will continue through these new measures”. 

Many researchers have come out in support of the second lockdown, which government scientific advisers first recommended on 21 September. New restrictions in place from 5 November will include a ban on gathering with people from other households and the closing of non-essential businesses such as pubs and restaurants. 

“These measures should have been announced several weeks ago,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton. “However, even at this stage, these newly announced measures should help to provide some level of control over community transmission.” 

This article appeared in Research Fortnight, and a version also appeared in Research Europe