“We couldn’t just turn off and go home”  

For many people COVID-19 has meant remote working, but some jobs just have to be done in person. We hear from the staff whose roles require them to come into work: the technicians, gardeners, porters and others who have been keeping the University and Colleges going during the uniquely challenging circumstances of a global pandemic. 

Priyanka Pais, University Library

I work at the front desk in the University Library. In the entrance hall we have a check-in point, locker room facilities, our Click & Collect service, and the exit desk where we check people out. Figuring out workflows was complicated.  

At first, it was quite chaotic but now it has calmed down and we have a flow. There’s a lot happening all in the same space but we kind of dance smoothly around each other.  

It’s hard work, I’m not going to lie. There’s a lot to think about on the ground, but we’re also getting more phone and email enquiries than usual. And we have to help people who are having trouble with the new digital ways of accessing material. It has been nice to be busy, but on the days when I work from home it can feel like a relief.   

I do miss just being able to wander into different departments, or the tea room, and have chats with people to find out what they’re doing. I run the library’s Instagram account and I often discovered material for the feed through those unplanned catch-ups.  

I think we’ve done a good job of adapting how we normally work and figuring out new ways of getting by. It has felt quite epic to be part of! If we didn’t come in, then none of this would happen.  

“I am deeply grateful to those staff whose vital work in person ensures that the University can pursue its core activities of teaching, learning and research in as safe an environment as possible.”
Professor Stephen J. Toope, Vice-Chancellor

Mark Vining and Daniel Phillips, Research Laboratory Technicians, Department of Engineering

Mark Vining & Daniel Phillips

Mark Vining & Daniel Phillips

Mark: We’re doing practicals for students so we are on the frontline. It’s a very rewarding job, but this year especially it has been quite an operation.  

We have the same number of students but the class sizes are smaller. We now run our machine tools class three times as often as we used to – six hours a day. We have 15 minutes between classes to clean the workstations and the shared machinery.   

We make the students all sanitise before they come in – we almost sheep-dip them! - and I’m continually sanitising my hands.  

I’ve had several cases of students not turning up because they’ve either got a positive test themselves or someone in their household has and they’re isolating. We quarantine their course work and lock the tools away and we’ll do catch-up classes at the end of term to give them a chance to finish their projects.  

Daniel: When we first came back to the department it was just so quiet. I work in the Dyson Centre and students are normally coming and going all the time.

But this year we didn’t see a single student till the first day of term. We spent the time making detailed training and safety videos on every single machine we use in our courses and labelling the tools in every toolbox – over 500 in total - to prevent cross-contamination between users. 

It’s hard teaching a practical subject without being able to touch the tools. Normally if someone’s struggling you’d just swoop in and show them yourself, but instead we have to try and do it with verbal instructions from two metres away.

In a normal year I wouldn’t be a regular teacher on these courses, but I’ve had to step up because of the pandemic and illness in the team. Before I did my apprenticeship I was a teaching assistant in a special needs school, so I like being people-facing.  

The students are definitely enjoying it. We’ve had a few comments saying “it’s the best thing we’ve done all year” which has been nice to hear. 

The “Quaranteam”, Plant Metabolism Group, Department of Plant Sciences

L-R: Katrin Geisler, Lorraine Archer and Katie Sutherland

L-R: Katrin Geisler, Lorraine Archer and Katie Sutherland

Lorraine: Our lab does really intricate work with algae. When the lab had to close for the first lockdown, we had over 700 algal strains we needed to keep alive, many of which are the only example in the world of their type.  

The three of us gathered information from our researchers about how to care for their strains and we made a huge spreadsheet and a colour-coded labelling system.   

We were allowed in for four hours, three times a week to do the cultures, which was absolutely manic. We’d come out at the end of four hours too exhausted even to ring each other. But we didn’t lose a single strain.  

Normally I go home to Ireland as often as I can to see my mum and my daughter, but I stayed here all through lockdown. So that has been hard.

Katrin: I’m from Germany but I decided right at the beginning that I would stay here. My parents are vulnerable and I didn’t want to risk catching the virus while travelling. I looked forward to my time in the lab, even if it was stressful.  

I would plan my movements in detail before I went in for maximum efficiency: pick up this from here...go upstairs... while this is defrosting, do this other thing. You had to account for every second! We would take pictures of the cultures for our researcher so we could reassure them that their strains were doing ok.  

Katie: When everyone started coming back to the lab they were so excited. That was our highlight. We were proudly showing off what we had done, and people were really pleased with how well we had looked after their experiments.   

My mum, who I live with, is quite high risk so I am very aware that I might bring the virus home. She works entirely from home, and now I’m going into work every day. But I'm glad to have the opportunity to get out of the house, and the lab feels very safe: I’m really confident in the work that the department’s reopening team has put in.  

“Our technical colleagues have done hugely important work this year making labs and workshops safe and keeping vital research and teaching going despite COVID restrictions. It’s difficult to imagine how the University would function without them.”
Professor David Cardwell, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Strategy and Planning

John Morris, Deputy Head Porter, Jesus College

Back in March it was all very surreal. Nobody really knew what we were facing or how to deal with it.  

We had a mad rush to get all the students away safely but then for months it was like Groundhog Day. Most of the college staff were furloughed or working from home, but porters lodges have to be staffed all the time.   

It was as quiet as it would be normally at 7am on a Sunday, but all the time. You could walk round the whole perimeter of the college and not see one person. Even deliveries were few and far between.   

But when the students came back we quickly went from “what shall I do for eight hours” to “where did those eight hours go?!” At the beginning of term we had quite a few trying shifts, because we had to police the social distancing rules. 

We can see how things haven’t been the same for students, particularly freshers who haven’t had the chance to make friends across College and their subjects like they usually would.  

It has been very different from a normal term for us too. With all the COVID safety measures it has been harder to meet the students and get to know them compared with previous years. And it can feel like a lot of the time we have to be the ones saying “sorry, you can’t do that”. Of course we try to do it in a friendly way, but it’s a difficult situation.  

Portering is really rewarding. I try to look after people the way I’d want someone to look after my daughter if she was here and she had a problem. At Jesus we pride ourselves on having a really positive, friendly relationship between the students and the porters, and I think we’ve still got that.  

Jo Cobb,  Head Gardener, Murray Edwards College

I worked through the first lockdown alone for a few weeks and then with another gardener, Zach Wright. It was very hard work, as lockdown came in spring when everything needs to be done at once.   

That sounds a bit grim when it wasn’t really. It was a beautiful spring and it seemed like nature took over the college: we saw and heard hundreds of birds round the buildings, and foxes and deer right by the doors.   

With the deafening birdsong, even the colours seemed to intensify and the experience became hyperreal at times like in a Technicolor movie with bright green grass and pink, pink blossom.  

We found some unusual wild plants like Nonea lutea, White Helleborines and common broomrape. Perhaps we had time to notice things at our feet for once.  

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I was supported by a network of other head gardeners who were really funny and helpful. We buoyed each other up and shared notes on how to cope without the gardening teams. 

We all hoped that lockdown would teach us something and perhaps it is the importance of nature to us all. Things are changing as a consequence: nature and biodiversity have now become very important to students and the colleges.  

The second lockdown has been very different and in a way more fun. The college is packed with students and they have marquees and portakabins for socializing in the garden.

We are now growing wild flowers in the front of college and vegetables like lettuce and spinach in the main garden. We want everyone to enjoy the garden as much as they can this winter and spring 

“College staff across Cambridge have gone above and beyond in their dedication to looking after the health and wellbeing of our students and ensuring that the in-person Cambridge experience can still happen in the best way possible despite the pandemic.”
Ms Sonita Alleyne OBE, Master of Jesus College

Alan Turner, Maintenance Supervisor, Cavendish Laboratory

My team of six and I look after nine buildings, with hundreds of rooms and some hazardous equipment. We couldn’t just turn off and go home when the first lockdown happened.   

We kept our buildings ‘live’ so we could open again as soon as lockdown was lifted. We walked round the buildings every day, and every week we flushed all the water pipes through (to prevent legionnaire’s disease) and tested the fire alarms and emergency lighting and generators. We also did a whole lot of other jobs like annual boiler and lift safety inspections, as well as repairs and installing COVID safety measures.  

We chaperoned academics who needed to visit the building, and some of us even acted as postmen, taking people’s post (and other necessary supplies) from the department to their homes.  

We often get callouts at 2am for problems in the department  so we’re used to being in the building when it’s quiet, but it was still surreal – you could go all day on site without seeing another person. In our team we actively tried to avoid each other because we were worried about passing COVID between us. Without us to look after it, the building would have to shut.   

I think we are the lucky ones, because we kept routine to our lives. Because we still had all these jobs to do, it was far nicer for us than being at home.  

In normal times people don’t notice our work – we float beneath the radar. But during the pandemic we’ve been more visible, because we were the band of people staying at work to keep the buildings going, and I think we are more appreciated than we ever have been.  

Words: Hanna Weibye, Jo Cobb
Design: Zoe Smith
Banner photography: Lloyd Mann
Photography: Lloyd Mann, Louise Walsh, Jo Cobb, Priyanka Pais, Blazej Mikula