Sigh Another Day: managing the Covid-19 crisis from the kitchen table

Daily tweets, cake baking and discussion of James Bond film titles have all helped keep Anthony Smith sane

July 22, 2020
Three screen monitors with James Bond, Cake baking and Freddie Mercury singing.
Source: Getty/iStock montage

“Lockdown”, “R number”, “social distancing”, “new normal”, “alternative assessments”, “no detriment”, “blended teaching”. These phrases have all joined “You’re on mute!” as cornerstones of a new lingua franca that was unimaginable little more than six months ago.

Along with Fiona Ryland, UCL’s chief operating officer, I have co-led UCL’s coronavirus response from the outset. Initially, four of us met weekly in my office. But, as it became clear the impact of Covid-19 was going to be big, a larger group of us met daily from mid-January.

I tweeted about my first day of remote working on 18 March – just a few days before the official UK lockdown – and I’m still writing a daily tweet 80 working days later. Looking back, some tweets were a bit frivolous, whereas others were more reflective and candid. Not all days go well: there are frustrations and setbacks. But it is interesting to recall the things we worried about at certain times and reflect on the lessons learned. My tweets help me do that.

An early lesson for me was that communication more generally is – cue one of my overused pandemic words – tricky. But it is also essential. One afternoon in mid-February, a group of students emailed me to say that they wanted to return home to China. They were anxious as they had seen family and friends affected by Covid-19 – and also seen the success of a strict lockdown in bringing the outbreak under control.

I agreed immediately. But my email got partially copy-pasted into WhatsApp messages and, within an hour, I faced a firestorm of emails from both staff and students asking me whether it was genuine. It was the right call, but it felt pretty uncomfortable because I didn’t then know what the consequences would be for visa status or assessment. Since then, I have worked every day with our brilliant communications professionals to send clear daily communications to our staff and students, which are still receiving thousands of click-throughs. Throughout, our priority has been to put our people and their safety first, and I think that has stood us in good stead.

Another tricky issue has been implementing good governance structures around decisions with huge academic and financial consequences. For example, we had to act swiftly to close buildings pre-lockdown when there was a coronavirus case. UCL adopted a gold/silver/bronze emergency structure early on, which was necessary but contrasted starkly with the collegial and consensus-seeking approach we are all used to in universities. The “gold command” calls, starting at 8am, seven days a week, were relentless and focused on both managing the immediate emergency and planning for the future. We have now changed the structure to focus on delivery for the next academic year, but have retained the spirit of rapid escalation of issues and solutions, rather than hand-wringing (or “mithering” – another of my overused pandemic words).

I am particularly proud of how resilient, flexible and committed our staff have been. From the outset, our academics mobilised rapidly to research ways of tackling Covid-19, and we made the decision to release all our clinical staff to serve on the NHS frontline. They also adapted more than 3,000 exams to open-book and timed assessments online (it now seems odd that we were even considering putting thousands of students in an exam centre for three hours). And now, our community is working tirelessly to find innovative ways to address the mammoth challenge of delivering 6,000 modules remotely for large groups – as well as, where possible, campus-based classes for smaller groups.

And what about our students? In one of my early tweets, I thanked them for their forbearance; their lives have been turned upside down and their immediate hopes dashed. One of our best decisions was to involve our fantastic students’ union sabbatical officers in our crisis structure, along with trade union representatives. Their thoughtful insights and advice have been invaluable. This crisis has shown me what student partnership really means and if there is one thing I want to see continue post-pandemic, it is this.

So what else have I learned? That I am pretty resilient, calm and decisive, but prone to the occasional autocratic outburst – usually triggered by too much mithering from others! I’m definitely more aware of my feelings and mood than I used to be. On one occasion, I tweeted that I felt overwhelmed by how much work there was to do, while also grateful that I had so much work to do.

We are “all in this together”, but our individual experiences differ hugely. The challenges I have faced working alone from my kitchen table on a comfortable(ish) chair, have been very different from those of colleagues trying to juggle caring and home schooling with work. I’ve found the online video calls more intense than face-to-face meetings and I have learned the importance of taking breaks. Tired people do not make good decisions. So I have been exercising daily, baking cakes and relearning to play the piano.

But it hasn’t all been tricky! There have been lots of lighter moments, too. Queen lyrics, titles of James Bond movies and even Kylie Minogue tunes have made their way into senior team deliberations. And what at first seemed so alien is now definitely the “new normal”. Just the other day, I found myself putting on my headset as I switched on my laptop. I had no calls scheduled: I just wanted to do some work. Fortunately, I was still on mute.

Anthony Smith is vice-provost (education and student affairs) at UCL.


Print headline: Sigh Another Day: crisis control from the kitchen

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Reader's comments (1)

Anthony’s daily balcony selfie and lockdown count is one of the few fixed points in an uncertain world, but the consensus is they would have been more amusing with a gradually developing Dumbledore-style lockdown beard. This critical information has of course been fed back by helpful colleagues. On a more serious note, I remember being patched in via Teams to one of these early meetings and the erratic tech plus the gravity of the horrendous situation hanging over all of us. Everyone should take a moment to recognise quite how far we have all come in the sector since February. It’s been tough, but we’ve achieved incredible things, when you think a year ago our main worries were things like how to hold traditional exams in exhibition centres. Let’s hope we are able to hang onto some of the more positive benefits of the changes moving forwards.