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Donelan: Message from the universities minister

Image: Michelle Donelan Chippenham [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Universities are in the frontline in the fight against coronavirus, writes Michelle Donelan

The UK is experiencing an unprecedented challenge to people’s lives and livelihoods. But it is in times of greatest need that the country’s community spirit and fight shine through. 

Coronavirus cases continue to rise, putting huge pressure on the National Health Service. Our strategy is consistent: if we take the right action at the right time, we will protect the NHS, save lives and lessen this virus’s impact. 

But the measures we have taken have required some difficult adjustments to the way people work and live. 

As universities minister I am proud and grateful for the calm and decisive leadership I am seeing from higher education providers, and their incredibly creative and pragmatic responses in such a short space of time.

Rapid response 

My heartfelt gratitude is not just to leaders themselves but to all staff on the ground, from scientific researchers to those caring for students in accommodation, working hard in difficult circumstances to play a part in the greater effort. 

This sector is at the frontline in the battle we are facing. I know the pressure on those in higher education to respond to the crisis is enormous and I am grateful for the way they have responded. 

Take the University of East Anglia, where researchers are 3D-printing ventilator parts, masks and other critical equipment, while the university is also producing 170 litres of hand sanitiser a day. 

Elsewhere, Northampton University has volunteered its student halls and hotel rooms to healthcare staff and patients, while the University of Worcester has donated hospital beds, screens, tables and paramedic backpacks from its skills centre to the local acute hospital trust. 

These are just a few examples of how the sector is responding to help our embattled NHS. 

The response extends further than this. Research teams are working flat out to develop diagnostic tests and medical solutions that will help us beat this virus. 

The University of Leicester is working on a test that could simplify large-scale screening and help curb the spread of the virus, while the University of Oxford’s engineering science department and the Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research have developed rapid testing technology for the virus. In a situation moving at lightning speed, anything that buys us extra time is welcome. 

Teams across the UK are also developing ways to help people manage during the crisis. I applaud researchers from Cardiff University, who have set up a website to help people look for the tell-tale signs of Covid-19. 

Universities deserve our gratitude—they are not immune from the pressures others are facing. They too are managing the threat to health and wellbeing the virus poses. They still have a responsibility to look after the wellbeing of their students and staff, and that has never been more important than it is now. 

The government expects universities to follow the guidance on social distancing and working from home wherever possible. Our advice to students still at university is to stay there and not to try and travel home.

Financial worries 

Other challenges are financial. I know there may be large numbers of staff who are on short-term, casual or hourly paid contracts, as well as those employed by outsourced services. They will of course be anxious about how they will manage financially. 

In most circumstances I expect employers will be able to continue paying staff. But where this is not the case, workers can rely on the package of support announced by the chancellor, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which will help pay staff wages and keep people in employment. This allows employers to claim for 80 per cent of the usual monthly wage costs for employees who are placed on a leave of absence, up to £2,500 a month. HMRC is working urgently to get the scheme up and running and we expect the first grants to be paid in weeks. 

I would like to say how grateful I am for the work that unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association have undertaken in response to the crisis, particularly in the guidance they have developed for those in the sector. 

Those who work in other sectors will also be making a huge contribution to our national resilience and every one of us has a part to play on a personal level, following government advice about staying indoors and observing vital guidelines about hygiene and social distancing. 

Communities across the country are coming together to help more vulnerable members of society and each other. 

This is not a quick fix. The fight against coronavirus will not be short—it will take months, not weeks, before we beat it. There may even be other measures we have to take to safeguard each other and the NHS before we can safely say that it is over. 

We have tendency for coming together in the UK when things are at their gloomiest, and I have no doubt that with the help of our world-leading universities we will beat this virus. When we do, the nation will emerge stronger and more resilient as a result.

Michelle Donelan is minister of state for universities 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight