Cambridge city centre has become busier in recent weeks as shops have reopened, with social distancing measures in placeAmy Batley

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The Varsity Covid-19 blog is now paused. To read coronavirus-related developments that happened in Cambridge in March, April, May and June, please see our previous live blogs.

Friday 31st July 12:52am 

The latest findings from University of Cambridge statisticians show it is very likely that the R number, which rates a virus’s ability to spread, is close to 1 in most regions of England. The team is part of the MRC Biostatistics Unit Covid-19 Working Group.

The team found that the South West and the South East have the highest probabilities, 62% and 57% respectively, of their R numbers being greater than 1. In comparison, the Midlands and East of England have the lowest probabilities, at less than 20%, that their R values exceed 1. 

The R number shows the rate of transmission of the virus and critically, R needs to be below 1 for the virus to be at a ‘manageable level’. 

The team currently estimates that the number of new infections arising each day in England is 3,000.

By mid-August they predict that the daily number of deaths from Covid-19 will be between 43 and 84. 

However, alongside the latest results, the team stresses that the data used is only weakly informative of regional R numbers over the last 2 weeks and as such, the “now-cast for current incidence and the forecast of deaths are quite uncertain.”

Thursday 30th July 12:47pm 

The University and Colleges released a joint statement yesterday evening (29/07) on the use of face coverings. 

The statement says that all members of the Cambridge community are expected ‘to wear face coverings in any work or study setting, at a minimum, unless it is clear that social distancing can be maintained at all times, or someone has a medical exemption. Therefore, we should carry face coverings with us and wear them where asked to do so by College or University authorities or when it is a courtesy to others’.

This means that face coverings are to be worn in all University buildings ‘where it is not possible to maintain social distancing of at least two metres.’

The rules in Colleges are likely to vary depending on the different spaces available to each but they ‘will all follow these basic principles.’

Exemptions are made for a variety of reasons including ‘pre-existing breathing difficulties’ and ‘mental-health conditions such as anxiety or panic disorders exacerbated by wearing a face covering.’


Saturday 25th July 12:12pm 

The Children’s Task and Finish Group (TFC), which is a subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has published advice on the reopening of universities this Autumn. The guidance addresses to social networks, education ‘bubbles’ and risks of returning to family at the end of term.

The document, co-written by TFC and the Government Office for Science (GOS), describes universities as ‘complex, interactive, systems’ in which ‘universities do not only affect students’ but also staff who ‘will likely be from older and more vulnerable groups relative to students. 

The authors emphasise the need to consider that many young adults may be asymptomatic.

The report raises particular concern about the possibility of universities to ‘act as amplifiers’ of coronavirus when students return home. SAGE suggest that this ‘could pose a risk for spread across the UK’ which ‘will be further exacerbated if people return infected but asymptomatic’.

There is also concern about ‘the potential for “spillover” into the local community during term’ if students return ‘home after falling ill or being diagnosed with COVID-19 to avoid having to quarantine alone’. The report recommends that ‘measures to reduce the risk and size of outbreaks within universities and rapid detection and containment of outbreaks within universities would all help limit transmission to the wider community.’

The document also suggests the possibility of ‘nesting’, a term used to describe the possibility of putting ‘segments of the student population together’ such as by those on the same course living together, but recognises that this must be ‘balanced against wider consideration such as student diversity and mental health.’

SAGE also outline the potential risks of not reopening social spaces in universities: ‘a decision in a university setting to not reopen social areas may prompt staff and students to visit external cafés or travel home to eat, which could lead to higher risk of transmission’.

Sunday 19th July 1:04pm 

Air pollution data from Cambridge City Council shows the effects of lockdown on Cambridge pollution levels. 

Nitric oxide levels at Gonville Place dropped from March 23rd when national lockdown started and have remained relatively low in the ensuing months. 

Nitric oxide levels have averaged around 20 ug/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre of air) with highs around 40 ug/m³ compared to the months before lockdown were levels reached up to 100 ug/m³. 

Similar drops in pollution levels are evident in other sites the Council monitors including Parker Street and Montague Road. 

Saturday 18th July 5:39pm 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has proposed an emergency loan scheme for English universities at risk of insolvency, in order to “help those who are still facing financial difficulty as a result of Covid-19.” This follows a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting that 13 universities could collapse without a government bailout. 

Williamson suggested that any government emergency measure to save universities would involve pay cuts for vice-chancellors and senior staff, as well as requirements to “focus more on subjects with better job prospects for graduates” such as technical and vocational courses, rather than courses considered to be of  “low value”. Universities would be advised to avoid “subsidising niche activism”; funding for student unions would focus on “the wider student population”.

The proposal explicitly does not guarantee that universities will not go into insolvency.

This announcement has been criticised by the Universities and Colleges Union, which accused the government of using the financial crisis as an excuse to “impose severe restrictions on universities.”

Jo Grady, the UCUGeneral Secretary, claimed that ministers are trying to “exploit universities’ financial difficulties to impose evidence-free ideology” and “reduce the diversity and strength” of university courses. She criticised the government’s “obsession with graduate earnings as a sole measure of quality” and its apparent “refusal to engage with the real issues behind inequality”, calling instead for “a proper plan to underwrite the funding that universities are projected to lose to avert a looming crisis”.

Tuesday 14th July 11:43am 

The annual Oxford-Cambridge Varsity rugby match has been postponed until later in the academic year.

Organisers are planning for the event in Twickenham, which was scheduled for 10th December this year, to be played in March 2021.

Cambridge men's captain, Stephen Leonard, explained that the reams "felt we had to make an early call on whether or not to commit to the original date for this year's Varsity match".

Thursday 9th July 5:50pm 

A record 40.5% of school leavers in the UK have applied for degrees starting this autumn, according to Ucas data. 

This admissions cycle is the first time more than four out of ten students have applied to university by the end of June. 

During this point in the admissions cycle last year, 38.9% of 18-year-olds had applied to go to university. 

Between mid-March and the end of June, which includes the period of nationwide lockdown, applications rose by 17%, somewhat quelling higher education institute’s fears about the aftermath effects of Covid-19. 

The number of applicants hailing from the EU is 2% lower than last year but non-EU international applications are up 10% compared to the previous year. 

However, both the number of domestic and international students starting university in September is subject to change as students who have applied may decide to defer their place or not attend university at all because of the impact of Covid-19 constraints on student life.

Monday 6th July 11:20pm 

An Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report titled “Will Universities need a bailout to survive the COVID-19 crisis?”, estimates losses for UK universities could range anywhere between £3 billion and £19 billion for the 2020-21 academic year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The report found the biggest financial losses will likely stem from falls in international student enrollment and rising deficits in university-sponsored pension schemes, which universities will eventually have to plug. 

The IFS warn that higher-ranking institutions, including Cambridge, are most likely to be affected by coronavirus-related financial losses.

However, the report stresses it is not these high-ranking institutions, with large financial buffers, which are at risk of insolvency. Rather, institutions with smaller predicted losses, who had “already entered the crisis in poor financial shape”, are most likely to collapse. The report suggests thirteen universities face "a very real prospect" of insolvency unless there is a government bailout. 

Universities will struggle to “claw back" losses through cost savings "unless they make significant numbers of staff redundant”, the report detailed while also warning of the impact of dismissals on teaching quality.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of UCU, expressed concern surrounding the findings of the IFS report as universities are “already seeking to sack staff, with casual staff and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds suffering the most.” She stressed the need for a “comprehensive support package that protects jobs, preserves our academic capacity and guarantees all universities’ survival.”

Thursday 2nd July 6:40pm 

In an email sent to all staff and students today, Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope announced that the University has passed a “key milestone” in re-opening over 100 buildings. 

Buildings will be reopening in phases. Lab-based research facilities will be opening first and Toope noted in his email that the “majority of research buildings, libraries and museums will be reopened by the start of Michaelmas term.” 

 All University buildings, aside from those undertaking research “relating to Covid19 or other areas in the immediate national interest”, were closed on the 20th of March as Cambridge moved into the ‘red phase’ of its coronavirus response. 

Toope’s email expressed gratitude towards the University’s Estates Division, “who have been working around the clock to ensure that each and every building is safe to open” as well as the University’s Buildings Taskforce, Departments and Faculties for making the reopening of buildings possible.  

The Vice-Chancellor's email also mentioned the expansion of the University’s COVID-19 testing programme to include household members of students and staff currently in Cambridge if they have coronavirus symptoms. 

This was the final weekly email update from the Vice-Chancellor, signifying the University’s move from crisis conditions towards the recovery process.

Thursday 2nd July 4:57pm

The School of Clinical Medicine has announced free PCR Covid-19 testing for all undergraduate and postgraduate students currently in Cambridge.

The programme, which was announced by Patrick Maxwell, the Regius Professor and Head of Clinical Medicine, began on Monday 29th June. Those who test positive will be invited to participate in research with the department of Therapeutic Immunology.

The new program allows all students remaining in Cambridge, as well as Cambridge Assessments and Cambridge University Press staff, to get Covid testing if they have symptoms. This can take place at both Addenbrookes, and testing pods at the Engineering Site’s Dyson building.

A PCR test is a way to test for COVID19’s viral antigens, allowing for the virus to be detected much earlier than other tests.

The School of Clinical Medicine, in response to questions put by Varsity, is “unaware” of any other university offering such a testing program, and it’s part of the university’s “strategy for keeping “its staff, students, workplaces and the wider community safe.”  

The timing of the program was reportedly inspired by the recent success of the University’s similar program launched for staff. The Dyson building was chosen for “it’s ease of access.” It’s too early to say how the takeup has been, but there have been some students tested since Monday, although net testing of staff has been “relatively low”.

Wednesday 1st July 8:45pm 

University of Cambridge statisticians latest modelling results estimate that around 3,000 people a day in England are still being infected with Covid-19.

The team, who are part of the MRC Biostatistics Unit Covid-19 Working Group, have 95% confidence that the number of new infections arising every day is between 1,500 and 5,800.

The team predict that the “number of deaths each day is likely to fall between 35 and 70 by the middle of July.” 

They also critically estimate that the R number, which rates a disease’s ability to spread, is “very likely below 1 in each region of England.” 

The confirmation that the R number is below 1 across England is crucial for ensuring the rate of infection is decreasing to ‘manageable levels’. The R-value is one factor which helps determine the UK’s risk level and the government will continue to monitor the R number as lockdown measures ease. 

The Midlands has the highest probability (15%) among all regions in England that their R number is above 1. The first local lockdown has recently been announced in Leicester, which is in the East Midlands, because of the high number of new infections in the city. 

The latest information by the Cambridge team will be fed directly to the SAGE sub-group, who advise the government, and to regional Public Health England teams.

Wednesday 1st July 12:12pm

The University's Director of Communications, Paul Mylrea, appeared on BBC News today to discuss his experience of neurological problems associated with Covid-19.

Mylrea, who is also a Fellow at Wolfson College, is currently recovering after suffering from two strokes caused by coronavirus infection.

An unusual symptom of coronavirus infection, for some patients, is high levels of blood clotting. This can result in stroke.

Mylrea told the BBC's Medical Correspondent, Fergus Walsh, that his recovery has surprised his doctors, who thought that he would either not survive or would be left disabled. Although he can no longer cycle or dive, he says that he is becoming “progressively stronger” and hopes to be able to swim again.

Wednesday 1st July 9:10am 

The University announced that the University Library’s ‘Click & Collect’ service is available from today, Wednesday 1st July.

The ‘zero contact service’ allows library users, including the Institute of Continuing Education and any NHS partners, to request up to 5 University Library books or journals per day via the library server iDiscover. Users must then arrange an appointment to collect their books from the University Library entrance hall. Books cannot be collected without an appointment and only items that can be borrowed under normal circumstances are included in this scheme.

The reopening of the University Library does not mean that all students are permitted to return to Cambridge. Students are currently advised to follow the advice of Public Health England and only return to Cambridge if access to a laboratory is required, and upon invitation from their Department. Students who are not resident in Cambridge or are unable to commute from home are reminded to make arrangements with their College before planning their return.

High demand to access print collections is expected. Parking spaces at the library are limited at present due to construction work.

More information about accessing and using Click and Collect is available on the University Library website.

Wednesday 1st July 12:45am

Research by the Higher Education Policy Institute highlights the ways in which students higher education experiences have been impacted by the coronavirus.

The research, which surveyed 1,013 undergraduate students across the UK, showed that, in June, 19% of students felt that they had 'very clear' communication from their higher education institution, compared to 31% of students in March.

57% of students are currently living away from their term-time residence and less than half of students (42%) are satisfied with online learning which has replaced face-to-face teaching.

With regards to the next academic year, 75% of students expect their institution to operate increased hygiene measures, 71% expect social distancing measures across campuses and 58% anticipate that there will be limited interactions with other students.