Update on recovery and research, the start of Easter term and new ways of working.

Dear colleagues,

We are still in the midst of an extended period of national lockdown, but our attention has already turned to how we will eventually move the University back towards its fully functioning operations.

I have reported in my regular messages on the work undertaken to plan for new teaching and assessment in the months ahead, and to think about how we might provide education to our students in the next academic year. Just as much thought has gone into how we will resume the wide-ranging research activities for which Cambridge is rightfully celebrated, and of which we are all proud.

Recovery and research

Of course, we will only do so when it is safe and sensible. The timing, the sequence and the manner of the reopening will be largely determined by evolving government advice. It is essential, however, to have laid down the groundwork that will allow us to restart swiftly and effectively when the moment is right.

Among the taskforces created to manage the COVID-19 crisis is a Recovery Taskforce. Its main focus will be on overseeing and coordinating the University recovery during what we are calling the “Crimson” phase.

As we enter this “Crimson” phase, we expect most operations will continue to be run largely remotely, but with an emphasis on planning for recovery. Our regular committees will gradually take over from crisis Taskforces as the principal means of decision-making. Detailed scenario-planning will occur across the collegiate University, to allow Colleges to undertake their own planning within this framework.The University will engage in a thorough assessment of the financial implications of the pandemic for the medium and long-term future of the collegiate University. And careful consideration will be given to how the collegiate University could improve its efficiency and effectiveness.

As part of its role in coordinating the University’s response in the Crimson phase, the Recovery Taskforce will ensure that we have identified and learned from the experience gained in the earlier stages of the crisis – whether it is greater efficiency, or the ability to work more flexibly, or closer cooperation between various parts of the University (or, indeed, between the University and its external partners).

The Recovery Taskforce will also identify and explore new opportunities for the University that have emerged as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. It will liaise with colleagues across the collegiate University to ensure that their needs are considered and their insights are captured. And – crucially – it will develop and coordinate plans for a return to on-site activities under the different possible scenarios.

I am pleased to report that some of that recovery-focused work is already underway. Tomorrow I am chairing a scenario-planning workshop involving colleagues from across collegiate Cambridge as a crucial step towards planning for a post-COVID future. Separately, a detailed analysis is already taking place of the safest and most sensible ways in which the University can resume its on-site and non-COVID research work.

Though we are on the cusp of the “Crimson” phase, in which we hope to focus fully on the University’s bright future, we should all expect this to be a drawn-out process. Recent government statements suggest that, though restrictions may ease and some activities may resume, we will all have to continue adhering to measures such as social distancing for months to come. Our recovery – essential to any national re-building in the wake of the pandemic – will not soon be a return to our work exactly as we knew it. I have every hope that the University that emerges from the crisis will be stronger, and shine brighter, than ever before.

Further food for thought

The start of Easter term has meant the resumption of some University activities – albeit through digital channels.

For many students, attending the debates and lectures run by the Cambridge Union Society (CUS) on a Thursday night is a memorable part of the Cambridge experience. During Easter term, the CUS will be running events “virtually”. This evening, at 6:00 pm, it is hosting a timely debate on the motion “This House backs global governments’ lockdown”. Among the speakers will be Dr Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist leading Sweden’s unorthodox response to the COVID pandemic.

On 30th April, the CUS will host a panel discussion, including Dr Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, on whether Coronavirus crisis “shows humanity at its best”. These and many other events, broadcast on the CUS’s YouTube channel, are open to all.

Meanwhile, as part of its “The History of Now” podcast series, led by Sir Chris Clark, Regius Professor of History, our History Faculty has been broadcasting conversations that put the current crisis in the context of historical plagues and pandemics. It is fascinating food for thought.

Earlier this week, the first in a new series of alumni-focused webinars – “Cambridge Conversations” – featured Professor Ken Smith and Dr Nick Matheson, with Dr Chris Smith of the Naked Scientists as facilitator, discussing Cambridge's response to the medical challenges of COVID-19. I recommend it to anyone – specialists and non-specialists alike – wishing to gain a better understanding of the disease.

New ways of working, new ways of being together

This evening marks the beginning of Ramadan, a time of the year that would traditionally bring Muslim families together to break their fast. I was reminded of this while watching one of the contributions to the latest film in the series about Cambridge students and staff adapting to new ways of working, which I very much hope you will enjoy. We are all learning new ways of being present, and in touch, despite being physically apart. I wish all those who observe it a Ramadan Mubarak.

People are brought together by rituals. One of the more moving rituals throughout this crisis has been the weekly show of support for key workers on Thursday nights. Tonight, the Senate House – the building at the very heart of the collegiate University – will be lit up in blue to express our thanks to all frontline health staff. So, too, will the Jeffrey Cheah building on our Biomedical Campus. These are small gestures, meant to convey our infinite gratitude to the people keeping us safe.

I will be in touch again next week. Until then, stay well.

With best wishes,


Professor Stephen J Toope​