Blog – Surrey and Covid-19: reflections on our response and the future

“You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

As I write this, our country is still in lockdown, with all social distancing measures in place for another few weeks at least. This pandemic’s unprecedented impact on our lives has been extraordinary, creating new challenges and demanding that we ‘think on our feet’ as never before – and often bringing out the best in ourselves and our communities. 

A team of scientists from the University of Surrey, Lancaster University and Brunel University are developing an easy-to-use test that can inform people if they have COVID-19 in just half an hour.

First, I find it really heartening and am very proud to see the way in which our community has come together, not only keeping the university running – from online teaching to supporting students on campus – but also in support of our local community.

I find myself getting to know my home office better than ever. As most of our staff are working from home, we have had to adjust to new ways of working together while apart.  A huge thank you to all our colleagues who have stepped up to this challenge, and made things work in difficult circumstances, while juggling care responsibilities at home.

For many of us, this is a new experience of working remotely, in enforced isolation, and it can be unsettling and uncomfortable as we each navigate the best approach for ourselves. For me, it brings back memories of researching and writing up my PhD, which comprised long stretches of solo working and trying to stay focused, motivated and in good spirits day and night on end.

I’ve also discovered that working from home affords me the time to focus more and think more due to relatively less distractions of functions. Another benefit of the lockdown for me is that I rarely miss my daily exercise, something I didn’t always get to do previously – but the need to get out and about as officially suggested is really important, particularly when inside all day. I know that we will all be much changed by this crisis, in so many ways. We may have discovered how few distractions we need to be happy. We may have found that we thrive under pressure, or that we are able to manage a lot more than we had ever imagined. Areas in our lives that need extra care and attention may have revealed themselves. We are all different people now. And the strength of the Surrey community has grown as a result.

How Surrey stepped up

Our research has always been ground-breaking and shown great impact. However, it is important to say that I am extremely proud of how our community has stepped up to the challenge posed by Covid-19. Our institutional mission to improve lives across the world shifted into high gear with the outbreak of this pandemic.

The University has installed network lines in their Leggett Building, giving it a direct connection with the neighbouring hospital. This will allow staff to relocate from their offices, which are currently in high-risk areas of the hospital.

We immediately started to play our part in helping the broader community around us. We have staff and students – including many qualified health professionals — who volunteered their time and services.  We offered partner organisations, including the Royal Surrey County Hospital and Guildford Borough Council, our facilities such as sports halls, student accommodation, laboratories, offices and parking.  Many of our researchers are also assisting in Covid-19 testing and related research to support the efforts of our local community and the Government. Our academics shared new advice on cybersecurity and provided real-time analysis and guidance on the pandemic’s impact across society.

We are also very grateful to our Alumni, friends and partners all over the world for their expression of solidarity, and support to us.  Many of them have donated money or materials such as PPE, to us and through us to Royal Surrey County Hospital and other clinic and care home organisations.  There is a tremendous response to our student hardship fund appeal, and the generous donations from our Alumni and wider university community will make a huge difference in supporting those students who are in greatest need.

Surrey has delivered.

We are truly enacting our institutional ethos of making a real difference to people’s lives, which dates back to our roots in Battersea Polytechnic, but which has rarely been as visible, tangible and impressive – on such a large scale – as it is today. Teams have worked tirelessly, thought laterally and worked with great agility. If we continue to play our part and work together so successfully, I am confident that we will emerge from this crisis even stronger and better prepared for the future. 

Emma Wise is a Research Fellow at the University of Surrey studying herpesviruses, a family of DNA viruses that cause infections and diseases in people and animals. She’s currently supporting the NHS with coronavirus (Covid-19) testing at Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital.

Future challenges, and opportunities

What are the opportunities now that are arising, and have arisen, from this crisis?

It is amazing to see how quickly our staff acted to transition all our teaching and assessment online, and how we have all adapted to using technology for remote working.  Post Covid-19, I am sure this is something many people think will be one of the positive legacies – we will become more agile and conversant with virtual delivery and online working tools as a result.  Imagine a future where we will use technology better to enable flexible learning and working, to balance productivity with sustainability.  What the pandemic has also shown is that many of the physical travels and face to face meetings might not be necessary, and there are smarter ways to communicate and keep in touch, beside the essential social interactions that we must have.

This situation has raised everyone’s game for collaboration and cooperation.  It shows us what is possible – and focuses us on achieving higher than ever before. It is always difficult to find the right balance between the urgency of the short-term, and the more considered approach that the long-term requires. Most organisations face this challenge, but seldom at the scale we are now experiencing. Our ability to stay flexible and ‘pivot’ is being tested every day. Crises like these reveal the true nature of any team or organisation, and show us – often to our genuine surprise — what we are capable of.

The silver lining for our community is that “the crisis has reminded everyone of the vital importance of science and research. People understand that medicine depends on scientific research, and epidemic diseases are brought under control only when we develop a vaccine.”  The pandemic has “revealed the core contributions of science to medicine and health, and this fact is likely to increase support for science in general”.[1]

As with most of the world, we will now measure our lives from ‘before’ and ‘after’ perspectives. But normality will return — albeit gradually and to a new version of normality. There will of course be new challenges after the pandemic, not least in the immediate reduction in international student enrolment, according to a recent QS survey.  Operationally, we may not have a smooth and normal opening of the next academic year if some level of social distance will be still required by then.  However, it is vital to maintain a positive attitude in the face of present uncertainty whilst acknowledging the much broader difficulties we have to overcome in the immediate future. We must remain optimistic, and united in our desire to carry on our education and research mission – with the new resolve, understanding and determination that this testing time has brought us. 

[1] Prof Simon Marginson of Oxford University & Prof Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University in