Don't panic: sector in state of readiness over swine flu

Universities prepare contingency plans as UUK calls for 'sense of proportion', writes Hannah Fearn

August 20, 2009

It has been four months since the UK recorded its first case of swine flu, and universities are ensuring that they are well prepared for anything the virus throws at them in the new academic year.

They aim to safeguard staff and students, but are also looking to protect themselves from the potentially severe financial impact if, as has been suggested, international students stay away from British shores as a result of concerns about the disease.

But while medics acknowledge that the UK has been hit harder by swine flu than other countries in Europe, they are also adamant that there is no need for panic.

Ken Eames, research fellow in the Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that although the number of Britons who had contracted the illness had now reached several hundred thousand, "the number of cases is, at best, an estimate". He added that other countries, such as Germany, were quickly "catching up".

Dr Eames said that international students should not be worried about taking up places here.

"It would be very silly to miss out on a university education because you're worried about flu," he said. "Data so far suggest that the severity is similar to that of a dose of seasonal flu - you'd rather not get it if you can avoid it, but it is just a few days in bed for most people.

"Like seasonal flu, it will spread around the world eventually. Although you can avoid the current hotspots, you can't run from it for ever."

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, agreed.

"It's a global pandemic - you won't avoid it by staying in China," he said. "And if you're going to get it, you're much better getting it in a country with an excellent health service, such as the UK."

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has issued detailed guidance to universities, telling them what to expect during a fast-moving outbreak.

The advice focuses not only on the practical - such as keeping students informed about ways to prevent the spread of the virus - but also on the political.

Hefce tells universities that they must consider how they manage media interest, preparing statements for the press in advance and identifying willing spokespeople.

They have also been told to determine their priorities, working out which parts of their work could be scaled down or suspended if necessary.

Hefce has advised institutions to allocate "deputies of deputies" to ensure key posts are filled in the case of widespread absences.

However, like Dr Eames, Universities UK has emphasised the need to keep a "sense of proportion".

Whereas Hefce has asked universities to plan for a variety of scenarios, including closing their doors altogether, UUK said that for most institutions, it would be "business as usual" in September.

Vice-chancellors are hoping that tough business continuity plans, such as offering lectures over the internet, will reassure foreign and domestic students.

At the University of Sheffield, managers are working with the Health Protection Agency and the National Health Service to monitor the threat level in the city.

Its contingency plan is based on the assumption that the university will remain open throughout any outbreak, but that key activities may be scaled down.

Other institutions are more concerned about the impact of swine flu on external organisations.

John Cater, vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University, said students' degrees could be compromised if work placements are cancelled because of illness.

"As a university with substantial numbers of students on practice-based programmes, the biggest threat to academic continuity is the closure of placement settings," he said.

But he added: "At present, no one is certain of the likely extent of the outbreak, but we are reassured that the evidence to date is that the number of serious cases is limited."


John Cox, a third-year philosophy and politics student at the University of Exeter, describes what it is like to suffer from swine flu.

My vision swims and I grumble as I roll over in bed. I try to recall how many drinks I had the night before, but a quick mental check confirms my suspicions: I actually stayed in. So why the hangover?

One call to NHS Direct and an ambulance visit later, all is clear - I've got swine flu.

My feelings vary from "Is this it?" to "At least I've got it out of the way."

My university's Pandemic Flu Working Group's action plan cranked into gear.

I speak to a member of senior management, who has volunteered to dole out sympathy and to enforce the strict swine flu rules, who tells me not to attend meetings for a while.

Four days later, I am right as rain. As illnesses go, swine flu is memorable only for the 15 minutes of fame it afforded me and the fear it engendered in my mother.

I remind myself to treat the inevitable panic when freshers' flu prompts "Swine flu explosion" headlines in the autumn with a hefty pinch of salt.

The truth is, I've had worse hangovers.

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