Imperial College London, whose research has played a key contribution to the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, has warned of widespread cuts to mitigate the damaging impact of the pandemic on the institution.
Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?
Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.
How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.
This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.
Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.
Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.
Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.
The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.
In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.
In an email to staff last week, college president Prof Alice Gast said she was taking a voluntary 20% pay cut as she announced a raft of cost-cutting measures, including the suspension of capital projects, a freeze on recruitment and plans to furlough staff members.
Imperial is one of the UK’s leading universities and a jewel in the crown of the higher education sector. Prof Neil Ferguson, of its faculty of medicine and school of public health, is one of the epidemiologists advising the government on Covid-19 and his team provided the modelling that led to the lockdown.
It is not however immune to the impact of the pandemic. Analysis suggests UK universities are likely to be one of the hardest hit sectors, with fears that international students will not return and the possible loss of tens of thousands of Chinese students next year resulting in gaping holes in budgets.
Gast told staff she was proud of the significant impact of Imperial’s research, clinical care and public outreach on the pandemic, but warned: “The immediate need, as we face threats to enrolments and the financial burden of the shutdown, is to look for ways to conserve cash in the coming year.
“We have already taken important decisions to suspend starting or approving new capital projects, limiting ongoing staff recruitment and identifying roles eligible for the furloughing scheme.” She added: “We need to consider further measures.”
Gast said Imperial’s provost, Prof Ian Walmsley would also be taking a 20% pay cut and the board had volunteered for a pay reduction of 10% over the next six months. “Our intention is to share some of the many sacrifices our community is making by volunteering, working on the front line or having their laboratory or workplace closed. This money will be used to help our students and staff in hardship.”
Imperial is the latest of a number of higher education institutions to announce cuts or restructuring. Last week the University and College Union (UCU) condemned plans by Durham University to provide online-only degrees and significantly reduce face-to-face lecturing in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this month it emerged that hundreds of university staff on precarious contracts have been dismissed in an effort to cut costs because of the pandemic. Staff on fixed-term contracts, including visiting lecturers, researchers and student support workers, at Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex universities have been made redundant or told their employment will or may end prematurely, or not be renewed.
Imperial has benefited from large numbers of international students in recent years, with 64% of the student body coming from outside the UK in 2017/18, of which Chinese students were the biggest non-UK nationality.
UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “It is extremely concerning that any universities are using the current pandemic to look at changes to jobs and staffing levels. Staff are working extremely hard in difficult circumstances and university job losses will be disastrous for the individuals concerned and their families, as well as for the future of higher education.”
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