This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Leicester. You can find Nishan on Twitter @NCanagarajah .
On 29 June 2020, Leicester became the first city in the UK to face a local lockdown. This was announced during the same week as the rest of the country opened up pubs and restaurants for the first time since March. Our city faced an unprecedented situation and a global media spotlight.
Being in the centre of attention was, of course, not unfamiliar for Leicester, a city which has seen the discovery of King Richard III under a car park in 2012 and an incredible Premier League title win in 2016. However, this time the attention was less welcome.
Being placed in lockdown came with many challenges:
- We had no prior warning from Government that it would happen.
- There was ambiguity about the policy detail, including the boundary of the lockdown area.
- The reputation of our city was cast in a negative light among the rest of the UK and overseas, impacting particularly its perception among prospective students.
- Unhelpful media coverage that blamed minority communities for the outbreak risked sparking community tensions in our otherwise wonderfully diverse, vibrant and harmonious city.
Communication in the face of uncertainty
Having been the first city to face a local lockdown, we know it to be an isolating experience. Leicester was singled out at a time when the rest of the UK was experiencing more freedoms and we were unable to draw upon the common experience of universities across the country. Now that we are emerging out of the other side of the lockdown, I am committed that our experience should serve to help our colleagues in the sector.
Last week, we released our report ‘Communication in the face of uncertainty’, in which we outlined the actions we took in response to the local lockdown. Alongside the report, I extend a hand of friendship and offer of support to colleagues throughout the sector who might wish to speak to us should they find themselves in a similar situation. The report covers our response in great detail.
Universities do not exist in bubbles. We live in local ecosystems and it is essential for the benefit of the institution and the wider community to develop meaningful partnerships and work collaboratively for the public good.
By joining our Local Resilience Forum, we were able to make a strategic and operational contribution to the well-being of the community. We joined our Resilience Forum at the start of the pandemic and found it to be an invaluable mechanism for information sharing and collaborative working. In particular, it helped ensure that organisations across the city were issuing consistent and clear public health messages, contrasting with some of the conflicting advice we have seen issued elsewhere.
We worked in partnership with the local authorities, NHS and public health officials on the UK’s largest ever test and trace drive, which targeted all households in COVID-affected areas. More than 200 student and staff volunteers from the University signed up to help.
The local outbreak, worryingly, prompted a rise in racial hate crime on social media and in some areas of the community, owing to media narratives around the origin of the spread of the outbreak being in an ethnically diverse area of the city. This was unacceptable. The University worked with partners to promote positive messages of tolerance and unity and I wrote a comment piece for our local newspaper calling for unity and togetherness. Our University’s Director of the Centre for Hate Studies and Head of Criminology published a video message for the community and the University was a lead partner in an initiative – Together in Hope – bringing together diverse partners including Leicester City Football Club and the Bishop of Leicester. On campus, we reiterated our zero-tolerance policy towards any form of racial harassment, discrimination and hate.
The University of Leicester has recently been ranked as one of the top performing universities in the UK for COVID-19 research, after being awarded more than £10.8 million of grant funding since the pandemic began. Our researchers were the first in the world to discover the link between people from BAME backgrounds being more susceptible to severe cases of Coronavirus and will now lead a new £8.4 million national research study into the long-term health impacts of COVID-19.
Making this world-leading research capability available to the community has been a priority. We developed an academic health taskforce to support and inform the immediate response to this unprecedented situation.
Looking to the future
As we approach the start of a new term and the arrival of students in September, we feel a great responsibility to our community. We are cognisant of the risk of students from across the UK and the wider world arriving in our city during a global pandemic and recognise the need to plan and act in a responsible way. This is why we are one of the first universities in the UK to have introduced a COVID-19 screening programme. Students and staff at the University will be screened for COVID-19 repeatedly as part of our plans to keep the campus and wider community safe. Looking back, I can say that I am incredibly proud of the way the city and our institution responded to the pandemic and the challenges presented by the Leicester lockdown. It has been hard being the first city to experience a localised lockdown and I know many colleagues have found it an extremely difficult time. At times like this, it is vital we reach out and support each other and I am very proud of how our staff and students have helped each other and the community within which the University is set. Our University was built on a heritage of kindness and hope by our community and so it is wonderful to see this continuing today.