UCL London


UCL striving to impact the lives of Londoners and beyond in COVID-19 crisis

Written by Professor Alan Thompson, Dean, Faculty of Brain Sciences and Pro Vice Provost (London), UCL 

30 March 2020, ISSUE 1

Alan Thompson

London has a population of nearly 9 million people, with 270,000 of these people living within the London Borough of Camden alone, the home of UCL’s main Bloomsbury campus. Whilst UCL is also home to some 15,000 staff and 40,000 students, many of these staff and students have moved out of London during the current COVID-19 crisis, back to their home towns elsewhere in the UK and beyond. Unfortunately London has seen the biggest increase in cases of COVID-19 across the UK in recent days and, as would be expected, UCL is coming together as a community to play its part in.

As Pro Vice Provost (London) I am continually advocating for UCL in what, how and why it brings to London, Londoners and our UCL community. This current crisis is no different. I am extremely proud of how UCL has reacted and assembled to contribute towards positively impacting London and Londoners in this extremely difficult time. Because of the way in which our students and staff have been dispersed since moving teaching online and encouraging staff to work from home, we have been successfully impacting communities and individuals all over the UK, not just in London. It is appropriate that we use our ability as an anchor for London, and the rest of the UK.

Our efforts range from national to more local impact. Nationally we have been undertaking critical research into COVID-19 health outcomes, related mental health outcomes due to isolation and leading efforts to design and produce low-cost ventilators. Whilst more locally our students have been volunteering and coordinating food donations, whilst our academics including Professor Andrew Hayward, Institute of Epidemiology and Health have been ensuring the homeless have adequate provision to comply with government recommendations during the crisis. Most recently mechanical engineers at UCL have developed a breathing aid to keep COVID-19 patients out of intensive care, alongside colleagues at UCLH and Mercedes Formula One. In addition, UCL’s Innovation & Enterprise team has been mobilising their business experts to support the London ecosystem. With our network of innovative partners and intermediaries, our immediate focus has been helping businesses to navigate this unparalleled time. More work on our staff involved in the outbreak can be found here.

In just these past few days, UCL has successfully placed its first medical student volunteers on the wards of the Royal Free Hospital. Djamil Damry, a final year medical student, has carried out his first shift on the frontline. Dr Deborah Gill, Director of the UCL Medical School said:

“We are humbled by the commitment and tenacity of our final year students who have literally walked out of their exams and straight into volunteering to help their future colleagues and patients. We now have almost two thirds of our final year students supporting the NHS in hospitals and general practices and an ever increasing number of more junior clinical students joining their numbers”.

UCL medical students have not only been busy responding to COVID-19 on the frontline but also volunteering for NHS staff non-medical needs. Through National Health Supporters, students are helping to alleviate pressures on staff including childcare, grocery shopping and pet sitting, enabling NHS staff to continue to work throughout the outbreak. 40 volunteering groups are currently in action across all four nations of the UK. UCL medical students comprise many of these groups, 10 of which were initiated by UCL students. In the London regional groups our medical students are leading efforts here in the Capital. Connor Tugulu and Thomas Buckley, 4th year UCL Medical School students are the pair who were inspired to set up the first London group, motivated by a group of students in Edinburgh. Within hours of set-up, the group had nearly 4,000 members.

In addition, UCL has taken the key decision to release clinical academic and research staff from clinical duties so that they too can work on the frontline. Professor David Lomas, Vice Provost (Health) talks about his own experiences of going back to the frontline here. Professor Lomas said:

“I could not be prouder of the actions taken by my colleagues. Their contributions to the national effort to tackle the coronavirus pandemic are incredible. Many of our medical-trained academics are supporting clinical and frontline health services whilst dozens of other highly skilled scientists are working to find ways to protect our community. As well as volunteers, we are providing NHS colleagues with kit ranging from sophisticated ThermoFisher virus detecting machines through to face masks and eye protection equipment. We will continue to support the NHS and the national effort in every way that we can.”

The Engagement Team, UCL Culture, and the Volunteering Service are fantastic examples of the UCL community working together. These groups are working to explore how UCL can set up Listen and Respond activity focused on the emerging needs of our local community partners and voluntary sector organisations both in Newham and Camden. This work will build on the strong partner relationships built up by both teams over many years and will align with the UCL East vision, the emerging UCL Public and Community Engagement Strategy 2020-2027 as well as responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

Additionally Students’ Union UCL’s Volunteering Service have been working with its community partners across London to identify ways that students and staff can support their work during the outbreak, as well as linking students with the informal neighbourhood mutual aid groups that have come into being.

When noting impact directly on individuals on the frontline, Professor Rebecca Shipley, UCL Healthcare Engineering has formed a team working to create new ventilators and other forms of breathing support. In addition Professor Yiannis Ventikos, UCL Mechanical Engineering and colleagues have been rapidly increasing the production of ventilators. UCL academics have also rallied together to donate their Personal Protective Equipment supplies to colleagues in the NHS. The initiative, managed by John Draper, UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences derived the scheme in response to appeals on social media.

We recognise that the work we carry out at UCL is beneficial not just to Londoners but for the rest of the UK. UCL recently launched a vital study, led by Dr Daisy Fancourt, UCL Behavioural Science & Health that will be national in its reach, examining the psychological and social effects of COVID-19 in the UK. If we are to understand the effects of the virus and social distancing measures on individuals, our colleagues can be part of the national conversation around advice that is given about how well to stay at home. We are well placed in location and in critical expertise to be at the forefront of those conversations with decision makers.  The study is open to all adults and can be found here.

Our work, in, of and for London continues and our relationships with communities, stakeholders and government are even more important in the current climate.  We will continue to draw upon these partnerships in our COVID-19 research, volunteering and community impact. London is a world class city, a wonderful place to live and work offering fantastic opportunities for all. For the benefit of Londoners and all those who reside or visit this capital city, our collective efforts in the upcoming months will remain as important as ever.

UCL has now launched a UCL Coronavirus Response Fund, an initiative raising funding for UCL’s targeted COVID-19 research activity. A key area of the funding strategy is to enable resource to be focussed on the impact COVID-19 has on society, including the way we live and work. The fund represents a real opportunity to positively impact London, Londoners and beyond. Further information on the Fund can be found here.

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