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One year on: Reflections from working at the forefront of the pandemic

As 2020 started, the world faced the threat of a totally new virus, COVID-19. As we all navigated completely new and very difficult challenges in our working and personal lives, many of King’s academic and research community were at the forefront of the government, scientific, public and university response. As we mark one year on since the first lockdown began, we speak to the people behind many of the headlines and announcements we have read over the last year, to find out more about their own thoughts and reflections during that time.

Managing mental health and wellbeing

As we shifted rapidly to teaching and learning online and experienced extended periods of lockdown, one of the major issues to come out of the pandemic has been the effect on the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students. Professor Juliet Foster, Dean of Education IoPPN is King’s Academic Lead for Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. She speaks about the balance it was important to strike between short-term solutions to immediate problems and remaining focused on longer term strategies. Of course there has been a real need to respond to the many pressing challenges facing our community during the pandemic. I’ve been particularly impressed to see how quickly teams managed to respond to this: the King’s Residences team and their ResiLife programme, and the KCLSU Take Time In initiative have been genuinely remarkable, as has the way King’s Sport have moved their classes online and catered for staff and students all over the world (I’ve even started doing these myself – camera off, of course – nobody needs to see me doing Zumba).

"However, whilst responding to the immediate situation, we have also tried to remain focused on the overall strategic direction we have for student mental health in King’s, and not to lose sight of those longer-term principles."

King’s has made progress in working to develop and embed a ‘whole university’ approach to student mental health, but there is still much to do. Not allowing this to get lost in the midst of the crisis has been very important.– Professor Juliet Foster, Dean of Education IoPPN and King’s Academic Lead for Student Mental Health and Wellbeing

Juliet explains how the pandemic has influenced this strategy. “We have also learnt from our response as a university to wellbeing in pandemic, and this will now inform our work on the next strategic plan as well. The willingness of colleagues (both staff and students) not only to respond but also to reflect on this has been so important to me over the past year, and I’m confident that our next strategic plan will be all the better for it.”

Advising the Government

Professor Brooke Rogers OBE is Professor of Behavioural Science and Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s. She is currently the Independent Advisor on the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and is co-chairing the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours. She describes the pressure as intense, working all hours of the day/night and through the weekends, while juggling her ‘day job’ and childcare responsibilities.

It has been incredibly intense, fast-paced and demanding, but I have also experienced the most rewarding ways of working and engagement of my whole career. We have a great responsibility and we must do it well.– Professor Brooke Rogers OBE, Professor of Behavioural Science and Security in the Department of War Studies

Brooke’s previous work on government exercises, panels and advisory groups meant that when the call came to join SAGE, it didn’t come as a complete shock. However, emergency responses usually operate across a short time span. “It is difficult to think we are still part of an emergency response a year on - pandemics are unique in that respect and their demands on nations, the public and scientific advisers. I was prepared in some respects but to actually live the intensity of the response is a shock. Like all of us, alongside my job, I am experiencing living in a pandemic, living in lockdown and the impact that has on us and our families.”

Did she ever imagine she would be in this position? “No – though a key part of my research and teaching preparedness involves not only looking at the public response, but crucially the organisations leading the response and consider them as people too. Indeed, part of my teaching involves the sharing of different analytical lenses to understand the problem and think about solutions. Evidence-based approaches that we can bring to challenges and bring the evidence to life. I invite NGOs and practitioners to come and talk about what should happen, what challenges they face and the reality of response – it is important to bring it to life.”

And thinking about the insights she has gained from the last year, Brooke says for the first time there is a true recognition of the key role academics and scientists can play in an emergency response and we must consider how they can best be supported to do that while maintaining independence. “There is a role for universities to play in that, thinking about when and where their experts can support important processes. We are passionate about our areas and want to provide evidence into the response in an independent way. Of course it’s incredibly challenging to essentially do two full time jobs, but we find a way because we care deeply about these issues.”

Correcting misinformation

One in three people are exposed to COVID-19 anti-vax messages – just one of the findings from recent research from The Policy Institute and its Director Professor Bobby Duffy. They found that people who get their information about coronavirus from social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube are more likely to believe conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and to have broken key lockdown rules. Another study found that 15% of the UK public believe that “reporters, scientists, and government officials are involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about coronavirus” – but this almost triples, to 42%, among those who say they’re unlikely to or definitely won’t get vaccinated against the virus.

While some beliefs might seem outlandish, conspiracies and misinformation are far from harmless speculation – especially in the midst of a deadly pandemic.– Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of The Policy Institute

“Through our research over the past year, we’ve seen that conspiracy thinking is limited to a minority of the population – something which is important to emphasise – but that levels of belief are particularly high among certain important groups, such as the vaccine-hesitant.” explains Bobby. Indeed, researchers found that one in three people in the UK (34%) say they’ve seen or heard messages discouraging the public from getting a coronavirus vaccine, and anti-vax voices are using social media to amplify their messages. “Addressing this mix of underlying beliefs, misleading information and harmful behaviour is a key public health challenge and why research is needed to properly understand the nature of the problem.”

Realigning research

Dr Tom Foulkes is Director of Research Strategy and Development at King’s. When it came to the pandemic, he describes the response by the King’s community as ‘remarkable.’

People’s willingness to drop what they were doing and realign their efforts towards COVID-19 was incredible.– Dr Tom Foulkes, Director of Research Strategy and Development

"We ran a rapid call for COVID-19 research, giving people a week to submit their ideas – we had over 200 applications from all disciplines, right across the university. The speed of response meant we were able to make the first awards on 23rd March, the day the first lockdown started. Many of these have developed into much larger, government/charity funded projects, such as NHS-CHECK, which focuses on COVID-19’s effects on mental health in the NHS workforce.”

Speaking about any particular highlights, Tom points to the COVID Symptom Study, which uses data from the ZOE app. “It’s a great example of King’s response to the COVID-19 challenge - agile, but building on years of development and expertise. A similar approach was seen across the university, including for example The Policy Institute’s work on public opinion, or the recent findings by our cancer researchers about the interaction between blood cancer and the immune response to COVID-19, with implications for vaccination approaches.”

And for his own personal reflections over the last year, he takes some positives from the challenges we have faced. “I’ve noticed that many meetings are more inclusive, hearing more voices (including a colleague’s parrot!), as a result of the “hands up” and chat options on Teams. Many functions – including RMID – have done much more to bring everyone together, from weekly briefings to more informal meetings, and attendance at “optional” conferences and talks seems to have increased a lot. We’ve had to move two training programmes (Leading Researchers and Emerging Research Leaders) online, and to my surprise they still seem to work very well.

“I’ve also learnt about split digraphs, the bus stop method, The Iron Man by Ted Hughes and more, as a result of helping with home schooling – I found this surprisingly hard. Finally, I have realised that I can’t blame my commute for not having time to go for a run…”

In this story

Bobby Duffy

Bobby Duffy

Director

Brooke Rogers

Brooke Rogers

Professor of Behavioural Science and Security

Juliet Foster

Juliet Foster

Dean of Education

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