Update from the Vice-Chancellor about the public health campaign, living, working and studying in Cambridge, testing, returning to the workplace, and the 1st October address

Dear all,

I am writing once again as we prepare for the beginning of the academic year. I hope all of you had an opportunity to take some time away from work, and that you and your loved ones have been well during this strangest of times.

Since I last wrote to you, countless colleagues have been busy ensuring that staff are able to return to their places of work, and that students and academic staff are able to engage in teaching, learning and research, all in as safe an environment as possible. I am hugely grateful for their efforts.

Public Health Campaign

Over the summer, the University launched its public health campaign – Stay Safe Cambridge Uni. This campaign is now the primary resource for information on measures designed to keep everyone in our collegiate community – staff as well as students – as safe as possible.

If you are not already familiar with it, I ask that you take the time to read through the guidance and information on the campaign’s webpages. This guidance will be updated regularly. You can help us by sharing the link and disseminating the information. Colleges, Schools, and Institutions can download instructional posters to display in University and college buildings.

Living, working and studying in Cambridge

The safety of all our staff, students and visitors to the University and the Colleges, and the wider City of Cambridge community, remains our priority as we prepare for the start of the new academic year.

The University and the Colleges have planned in response to the expectation, confirmed by the Government, that universities should remain open this autumn while meeting all relevant COVID-19 regulations and guidance.

Among the measures that the collegiate University has put in place are:

  • A safe reopening programme for all University buildings;
  • A Return to the Workplace protocol that puts flexibility and individual staff wellbeing at the heart of any return to onsite working;
  • A blended approach to teaching, in which mass lectures for the 2020/21 academic year will be delivered online, with small group teaching, lab and practical work as far as possible delivered in person in a safe and secure manner;
  • The creation of household bubbles for those students resident in Colleges;
  • A symptomatic testing programme for all students and staff;
  • A weekly asymptomatic testing programme for all students resident in College accommodation.

It is not possible for any institution to operate in a completely risk-free manner, but we have been as thorough as we can be in making the University of Cambridge as safe as possible. We have made preparations to manage positive cases of infection, and plans are in place to deal with outbreaks. We know that the best way to contain infections will be through regular testing and isolation.


Testing is a key part of the University’s strategy for keeping its staff, workplaces and the wider community safe. Since the early summer, the University has been offering swab tests to college and University staff and students displaying symptoms of COVID-19, as well as members of their households.

Although demand for testing was manageable over the summer, it has been increasing. We expect it to increase further as more students arrive. Our data shows that people with minor symptoms do not usually test positive. In order not to overburden our symptomatic testing capacity, our testing facilities will be restricting the symptoms that make people eligible for a test. In addition, because of this anticipated increase in rate of infection, testing centres will no longer be able to offer testing to household members once the student population is back in full. This will allow the centres to focus their capacity on students in households that have tested positive in pooled asymptomatic testing.

The testing pod at the Department of Engineering has paused its activities temporarily as it recruits new staff, and we hope it will reopen toward the end of next week. The testing pod at Addenbrooke’s Hospital remains open. The teams are currently testing around 300 symptomatic staff and household contacts a day, with results reported 48 hours later. We all understand the inconvenience of having to isolate for 48 hours pending a test result, but the team has requested that people who have been tested do not call or email to get their test results, as the large volume of messages and calls are likely to cause further delays.

New and returning students

Many of our students are already in Cambridge, and we are preparing ourselves to welcome many more next week. A lot of effort has gone into ensuring that students will be safe and, within the current constraints, will enjoy the benefits of a Cambridge education and a Cambridge experience.

At this delicate moment, I ask that any students who are displaying COVID-like symptoms or who are already self-isolating do not travel to Cambridge until they have completed the full 14 day period of quarantine.

Returning to the workplace

Government guidance issued on Tuesday encouraged those who are able to work from home not to go into their place of work, to help stop the spread of COVID-19. This does not include workers in education settings who, the guidance makes clear, are expected to go into work.

We are seeking further advice from the government on how this guidance applies to higher education institutions, and we will update our own guidance on returning to the workplace when that advice is received. Until then, we ask that you please continue with current arrangements as agreed locally with your Head of Institution.

While we wish to encourage in-person teaching wherever possible, no member of staff will be compelled to participate in such teaching if they have concerns about their health and wellbeing.

Address to the University

Next week, on Thursday 1 October, I will deliver my annual Address to the University. Our community will not be able to congregate in the Senate House as usual, so this year’s message will be streamed live. Further details about when and how to watch it will be circulated shortly. I hope many of you can join me, albeit remotely.

As I sign off, I am hugely pleased to share a message of thanks to the University community recorded by the Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, highlighting our community’s tremendous efforts in the face of unimaginable difficulties.

I am in no doubt that the year ahead will be challenging. It will require us to be resilient, resourceful and kind to one another. I am confident that we will be.

With best wishes,


Professor Stephen J Toope