Brain Sciences


How UCL is helping London’s communities and people through the Covid-19 pandemic

26 May 2020

Written by Professor Alan Thompson, Dean, Faculty of Brain Sciences and Pro Vice Provost (London), UCL, Tuesday 26 May 2020.


In this month’s piece I want to focus on the impact UCL has had on London’s communities and people. We’ve been living with the challenges of Covid-19 for nearly 10 weeks and the changes we’ve had to make to our daily lives have started to become the ‘new normal’. Whilst experts at UCL have responded amazingly to national and global challenges, for example through developing the UCL-Ventura breathing aid and by contributing to the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and its related sub-groups, there are many local initiatives directed specifically at our communities here in Bloomsbury and around UCL East.

As part of my role as Pro Vice Provost for London, I am acutely aware of the importance of our relationships and engagement with our local communities and the ways in which we share and learn from each other. Whilst we are obviously now more distanced in terms of location, myself and colleagues from across UCL are striving to remain close to communities through engagement and targeted projects. I’m very much looking forward to meeting with Jon Rowney, Executive Director of Corporate Services at Camden Council next month to discuss how UCL and Camden could work together in the future under a joint-MoU, particularly around our shared priorities and goals for identifying local opportunities and working collaboratively together for the benefit of our local communities.

Understanding our local communities’ needs is a key part of UCL’s role in developing relationships with our neighbours and local people. The Listen and Respond service, created by the engagement team within UCL Culture and the Volunteering Services, as part of UCL’s Student Union, is exploring how UCL can understand the needs of communities and voluntary sector partners throughout the crisis, and respond in a way that benefits and supports all. Working in Camden and Newham, the service is a great example of how UCL can come together, across Faculties, to enable real change. One team driving work in this area is the Community Engagement Team who recently announced the latest successful awardees of their Community Engagement Seed Fund, designed to enable UCL staff and students develop relationships with partners, specifically in East London. All of the projects awarded have mitigating factors to their projects as a result of Covid-19.

Interestingly, through art and culture, we are still able to engage with Londoners, despite the physical barriers we may currently have. The Trellis: Public Art programme brings UCL researchers, artists and communities together in relation to the UCL East campus. Trellis has continued to support this programme throughout the pandemic and, most recently, a creative participatory research project, Flow Unlocked, was announced. The project, funded by UCL Culture and UCL East, aims to explore the experiences of autistic east Londoners (in particular those in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham and Waltham Forest) and their relationships with others during lockdown. The outcomes of the project are so important, despite what’s going on in the world around us, and aim to highlight autistic people’s relationships and help promote autistic acceptance.

One thing which we may take for granted is the ability to read and understand the UK government, health and targeted information, advice and guidance provided to us all in this time of crisis. There are of course specific groups who may be particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, and colleagues from UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies have identified the Hasidic community in North London as one of these groups, the majority of whom are Yiddish-speaking. Led by Lily Kahn and colleagues, Covid-19 guidance from the NHS, Metropolitan Police and Hackney Council was translated into Yiddish for the Stamford Hill community which comprises c.40,000 people. Pages were also published in local magazines, reaching over 5,000 households.

It is not only through translation services where we are able to target specific groups of people and communities. The UCL Centre for Access to Justice (CAJ) was set up by Professor Dame Hazel Genn in 2013 with the specific remit to ensure that vulnerable groups in Newham have access to the services and support which they are legally entitled to. Given the multi-faceted negative impact Covid-19 has had on people, many of whom are vulnerable or now unexpectedly vulnerable, the pandemic has resulted in the service transforming remotely so that it can continue to remain open. Supported by students from UCL’s Faculty of Laws, it offers free legal advice and representation by qualified solicitors, providing a lifeline to this community. The CAJ has also produced a free-to-access guide to outline rights and information for those living in Newham during this crisis.

Although this piece focusses on our impact on local communities I mustn’t neglect to mention the continued outstanding work by our researchers and academics into the health implications of Covid-19 and the associated outcomes. Many people in our neighbouring boroughs in Camden, Islington and beyond in Newham and Tower Hamlets have been directly involved in research projects, pilot studies and testing. Whilst the results of these initiatives will be national and even global, without the help of local people there wouldn’t be anything to report on. More than 600 elderly residents in Camden have volunteered to take part in the on-going ‘Long-term Information and Knowledge for Ageing – Camden’ (LINKAGE) study, of which a new sub-study to specifically look at Covid-19 and how older people recover from infection and illnesses, has been set-up. The LINKAGE study is led by UCL and in partnership with the NHS, NHS Camden CCG, Wellcome and Medical Research Council. Additionally the UCL-Ventura breathing aid, developed by engineers at UCL and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains with clinicians at UCLH has been delivered to NHS hospitals across the country including those in London to help treat Covid-19 patients.

Lastly we couldn’t reach as far widely as we are without the help of UCL student volunteers. The UCL Student Union volunteering service have opened up their remit to include Covid-19 opportunities to help during this time. Student enquiries for volunteering opportunities have tripled in the last 6 weeks. Not only have students partnered up with London councils and community organisations who have set up community response teams in order to help out, but students themselves have been leading their own volunteering projects. One student group, Amnesty International Outreach, hosted online workshops regarding citizenship education supporting young people in Camden, but it’s not just student groups volunteering as many individuals are getting involved, including UCL Medical student Antonio Neves who runs online Spanish courses for isolated older people through Age UK Kensington & Chelsea.

However, it’s not only our current students who are volunteering, our amazing alumni community are also volunteering remotely to help out. One of our most supportive alumna, writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry has been presenting a new weekly UCL Minds podcast series that explores the pandemic from the perspective of researchers across UCL. Last week during Mental Health Awareness Week the podcast explored the impact of coronavirus on people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health. Additionally over 100 alumni based in London are connecting through UCL Coffee Connect to have a virtual coffee together, to try and beat social isolation through meeting someone new from the UCL community.

Whilst we are all remaining socially distanced, we are not distanced in our ability to speak, engage and positively impact those around us in our communities and local areas. We are all connected by one common theme: London. Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of local partnership and relationships for UCL and the thing that brings us all together is our place in London. As we adapt our activities and plans for a new-Covid world, we will continue to draw on the positive drivers that come from being placed in London, whilst building on our connections, relationships and giving back to Londoners themselves.

To share your stories of how you are impacting London and Londoners, please contact Amy Lightstone.


Original article: UCL London response to COVID-19 crisis