Skip to main content.

Coronavirus protection strategy for a university college

Background

Vulnerability

People generally encounter little difficulty in recognising the potential for things to change. However, they often struggle to recognise their organisation’s vulnerability to changes and the potential for the resulting disruption that affect the achievement of their objectives.

Business continuity management (BCM) was an early attempt to address this issue. The focus of BCM is often on elaborate arrangements aimed at returning an organisation to its pre-disruption state. However, rarely does this approach focus on:

  • The opportunity, when making decisions, to lessen vulnerability to change
  • Seeking and exploiting the opportunities that can result from disruption.

BCM often leads to narrow thinking about vulnerability and responding to disruption. It also tends to focus only on a list of ‘events’ that the organisation considers ‘credible’.

We often suggest in workshops that epidemics (and pandemics) and the disruption they might cause an organisation should be considered. However, we normally find participants, based on their experience with annual bouts of flu, dismiss such events as either being of low likelihood or involving disruptions that can be accommodated easily by the organisation. Despite the enormous disruption that viral epidemic events such as bird flu, Ebola and swine flu have caused in the recent past in many parts of the world, many organisations seem to feel that they are not particularly vulnerable, that their existing contingency plans and arrangements will protect them or that governments will step in to eliminate the threat.

If organisations, people and communities only focus on lists of what they deem credible events, and not on their general vulnerability to disruption, they are likely to be quite unprepared when something unpredictable occurs. They are likely to be far better prepared and to have appropriate protection strategies in place if they start by identifying their vulnerability to disruption and why they might be vulnerable as part of normal decision making, rather than undertaking a periodic activity that starts with lists of events.

Coronavirus

It is clear that most people and their organisations did not foresee the current coronavirus pandemic (the coronavirus disease COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2), the level of disruption being caused and the speed with which this has occurred. It is not just individuals who are vulnerable, but the world economy. Established public safety and health protection arrangements are badly disrupted and are failing to respond in time to a rapidly escalating, global crisis.

Governments, organisations and individuals find themselves not only having to make increasingly critical decisions, for both the short and longer term, but having to do so in the face of much uncertainty and a rapidly-evolving context.

Each day we see decision makers grappling with those realities, and the associated challenges of trying to communicate their decisions while maintaining calm against the distorting influences of social media.

In the case of the current coronavirus pandemic, the world is having to respond to a virus that seems highly contagious, can spread through the air in droplets expelled when someone coughs, sneezes or even breathes, and can persist for some time in the air and on hard surfaces. The fatality rate seems high, particularly among those who have other underlying health problems.

At the time of writing in March 2020 there are no established ‘cures’ for coronavirus infection, treatment is palliative, and a viable vaccine still seems many months away.

Context

Places where many people congregate are particularly vulnerable to disruption from viral infections. In the case of universities there is the added problem of a cohort that:

  • Is difficult to control
  • Is highly gregarious
  • May live on campus but more likely will commute to home or off-campus accommodation, often using public transport
  • Comes from diverse cultures with many languages, making communication difficult.

When the threat of disruption from coronavirus first became apparent, Broadleaf was asked to assist a college at a university to develop a protection strategy. The college accommodates and feeds a significant number of students, many from overseas or from disadvantaged communities. There are also resident tutors (who have nowhere else to live) and a small management team. Contractors who come into work each day provide catering and cleaning services.

The college is housed on two sites, approximately half a kilometre apart. Each location is a collection of old and new buildings. The buildings are ‘rambling’ with several entrances.

It soon became clear that returning home was not a viable option for many students and tutors at the college as national and international transport systems began to close. In fact, it soon became clear that the college could and should become a safe haven for many, if they wished to stay.

When this work took place, neither the university nor the State or national governments had developed their own protection strategies. A necessary facet of this work, therefore, was to equip the college’s management team with the means to make sound decisions as changes occurred, as the threat escalated, and as externally established requirements were imposed and changed.

Vulnerability analysis

Many of the processes organisations (and nations) can use to understand such threats and the disruptions they can cause, are intricate and can be very complex. However, forming an appreciation of vulnerability is quite simple and involves just asking two questions: ‘Vulnerable to what?’ and ‘How?’.

In this case the vulnerability analysis involved two members of the college management team with a Broadleaf facilitator. It took just two hours to complete.

The vulnerable to what aspect of the analysis considered a range of events arising from the coronavirus pandemic. Many of them did not involve the actual infection of students, tutors, staff or contractors, but nevertheless they would disrupt the normal operations of the college in its pursuit of its purpose.

The how aspect involved two considerations:

  • The ways in which the college was vulnerable to the type of events under consideration
  • The effect of that vulnerability in terms of the college’s purpose.

Specifically, disruptive effects included:

  1. Inability to continue to operate as normal
  2. Having to adjust operations to either continue to operate as normal or to approximate the desired outcomes (albeit at additional cost)
  3. Having to discontinue operating as normal due to the changed circumstances and instead adopting a revised approach to achieve the college’s purpose
  4. Being presented with more or different opportunities.

The simple template shown in Table 1 was used. Two examples are given by way of illustration.

Table 1: Vulnerability analysis template (with examples)

Protection strategy

The direct output of the vulnerability analysis was a list of agreed actions for the college management team to implement; Table 1 showed some examples. More importantly, a simple, one-page comprehensive protection and prevention strategy was agreed that detailed all the requirements. Some examples are provided in Table 2.

Table 2: Protection strategy (with examples)

Requirement

Examples

Infection and contamination prevention generally

  • Sanitisers installed at all entrances with signs requiring their use by everyone
  • Visitors, students and staff directed to hand wash station at all entrances; provide soap and disposable towels at stations together with clear instructions on use
  • Towel bins emptied and wash stations cleaned once a day by suitably protected cleaning contractors
  • Shared salad bars and platters discontinued
  • Disposable plates, cups and cutlery used

Access control

  • All contractors, visitors and guests required to sign in after hand sanitising
  • Notices erected saying sign-in sheets will be replaced each day, will be kept confidential and secure, and destroyed after 14 days

Awareness and communications

  • College Facebook and other means used to ensure all students, staff and contractors are kept aware of the precautions to take, the symptoms to be conscious of and the steps to take if they experience symptoms
  • Daily Q&A sessions held online using ‘Zoom’ with all staff, students, tutors and contractors
  • One on one counselling arrangements provided for all students with social distancing

Contingent arrangements

  • Isolation (bed)rooms with en-suite bathrooms identified and prepared
  • Procedure and checklist for responding to anyone who reports symptoms
  • Triage of current students in terms of: those who can easily and safely go home; those who could go home if the college and the university shuts; and those who would be safest staying at the college or where travel would be very difficult
  • Discuss with other colleges the potential to supply meals if the college kitchen shuts; consider food hygiene requirements to transport cooked food

Contingent resources to be acquired and maintained

  • Hand sanitiser
  • Paper towels
  • Soap and personal nail brushes
  • Disposable plates and cutlery

Legal issues

  • Clarify the college’s right to send students home (as a last resort)
  • Clarify force majeure clauses in catering and cleaning contracts

Lessons

Simple approaches work

This exercise has demonstrated that using a simple approach to understanding vulnerability can equip decision makers with a ready means to make critical decisions in the face of much uncertainty and an ever-evolving context. This is the case even when the decision makers are being constantly challenged to communicate their decisions and maintain calm against the distorting influences of social media.

The strategy developed here has been shared, adapted and is being used by other colleges.

While some residents have decided to leave the college for home, for many it has become a safe haven where they can continue their studies through distance learning, online teaching and video-based lectures.

Maintaining flexibility

The effects of the coronavirus have evolved rapidly, as have the responses of Governments as updated medical advice has become available. The college management team have adopted a flexible approach that adapts to the changing environment.

The strategy has been updated since the original vulnerability analysis. It is reviewed on a daily basis to ensure it continues to provide protection and to address the college’s vulnerability as the crisis escalates. For example, at the time of writing this case study (in late March 2020) the strategy had been adjusted so that no visitors are now allowed into the college buildings, and it is highly likely that the strategy will have been adjusted again by the time you read it.

Client:
University residential college
Date:
March 2020
Sector:
Public sector and government business
Agriculture, biosecurity and the environment