A message to staff and students from the Vice-Chancellor on lateral flow testing, symptomatic testing and Staying Active Cambridge.

Dear colleagues,

Yesterday the United Kingdom reached a desperately sad milestone in the number of people who have died from COVID-19. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of every one of those individuals.

The University’s Gold team has today reviewed the response phase in which the collegiate University sits, as set out in the University’s Response Framework. After considering national and local public health indicators and the constraints under which we are operating, the Gold team agreed that the University should be regarded as being in the “Amber” (or high risk) phase of the Response Framework. This is a step up from the “Yellow” (medium risk) phase in which we have been for some time. In taking this decision, the Gold team also noted that the factors listed in the Response Framework are designed to be indicative, rather than determinative.

The move was made to reflect more accurately the realities in the country and across the collegiate University, although it does not – for now –require significant operational changes.

Symptomatic testing

Anyone who develops symptoms - even mild ones, such as a sore throat or runny nose - should seek a test from the University symptomatic testing service.

I am pleased to announce that, from Friday 29 January, the University will be able to offer the same testing service to symptomatic individuals who live in a household with University or College staff or students, but who are not themselves staff or students.

I must note that this enhanced testing is subject to capacity, and will be available for as long as we are able to deliver it.

Lateral flow testing

The best preventive measures for limiting the spread of COVID-19 are to maintain physical distance from others, wear a face covering, wash/sanitize your hands regularly, and ventilate indoor spaces thoroughly.

I wrote last week that, as an additional preventive measure, we are piloting the use of “lateral flow” rapid home testing kits (LFTs) for staff who may be at particularly high risk of transmitting the virus to others. Colleges and departments will decide whether to take part in this pilot scheme according to their own risk assessments. Some colleges and departments may decide they do not wish to participate in the pilot.

At the moment, eligibility for the pilot scheme is limited to University and College staff who work onsite five days a week, and meet one or both of the following criteria: 

  • Those who have to use public transport to travel into work; and/or
  • Those who work in settings involving close face-to-face contact with students, colleagues, visitors, contractors or the wider public, where social distancing is very difficult. 

Use of the LFT kits is voluntary. Departments and Colleges that are participating in the trial will contact staff who fit the eligibility criteria above to let them know how to register their interest. College staff will hear directly from their College about testing arrangements.

Participating departments and Colleges are likely to begin issuing the kits to eligible staff in early February. Initial stock of the kits is limited due to supply issues, so we cannot guarantee a kit to all staff who request to participate. Participating institutions will determine the priority order for receiving kits based their specific circumstances.

The tests involve a self-administered nose and mouth swab, and deliver results in approximately 30 minutes. Detailed instructions on how and when to use the tests will be included with the test kits.

Anyone who tests positive with an LFT should self-isolate and seek a more clinically precise PCR test (i.e. a regular COVID test) through the University’s testing sites  to confirm the result. You should also report to the COVID Helpdesk via the COVID monitoring form.

If you test negative with an LFT, but have signs or symptoms of coronavirus, you must still self-isolate immediately, and book a PCR test as soon as possible either via University testing or the NHS.

LFT kits do not always detect positive cases, so it is still important to be extremely vigilant about symptoms. A negative LFT result is never a reason to relax. Home testing can help to prevent the spread of infection by revealing asymptomatic infections. It does not, in itself, reduce the likelihood of infection, nor is it a replacement for other preventative measures.

It is vitally important that any staff using these tests continue to follow public health guidance rigorously. Crucially, the most important thing we can all do is minimise physical interactions while levels of the virus remain high. “Hands, Face, Space” and appropriate ventilation indoors remain far more important than individual testing.

Staying Active Cambridge

With our students scattered across the world and our staff largely working from home, the University’s Sports Service has extended and expanded the Stay Active Cambridge  Programme it trialled in the November lockdown. Whether you are new to exercise or a seasoned pro, its daily activity sessions – including Pilates, Strength & Core, Yoga and HIIT – can help us all stay active during this period of national lockdown. In a new “Coaches' Corner” section, industry experts present bite sized topics relating to health and fitness. More information on the Stay Active Cambridge Programme is available here.

Tackling COVID-19

Over 100,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19 in the United Kingdom. Its insidious impact is even more widespread, as is made clear by this research feature on the effects of “long COVID” on individuals and communities. Some sobering food for thought.

There are also important lessons to be learned in the way governments assess and mitigate risk, as Professor Simon Deakin and Dr Gaofeng Meng explain in this latest installment in the Beyond the Pandemic series.

We must find solace where we can, and lately I have taken some comfort in the success of the vaccination rollout, both locally and across the country. The days are getting longer, so there is more time to enjoy the outdoor pleasures of our Botanic Garden. Anyone unable to visit in person will still find much to love and enjoy in the Garden’s online Wellness Wanders

With best wishes,

Prof Stephen J Toope

Vice-Chancellor