The way the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding around the world is perplexing. Here in Australia and New Zealand, our public health measures have been highly effective at limiting the spread in our communities. Meanwhile, Europe and the US have now seen confirmed deaths from the disease rapidly rise beyond 150,000 - with the total number of excess deaths apparently more than 50% higher.
Australia's public health response has been effective, particularly here in Canberra, but seasonality might also be a factor. If so, we are going to have to work harder to limit the spread of COVID moving into the cooler months. But we have the benefit of advances already on our side, including our ability to test for COVID-19 increasing rapidly. Australia's borders are sealed - and some state borders are restricted - against importation of the disease, and the restrictions appear to be working.
But we need to beware. Any disease that grows exponentially, especially one with a large fraction of asymptomatic transmission like COVID-19, can run amok very quickly. Other countries' experiences show us that at any time, we could go from being a place where there have only been 3 cases detected in a fortnight, to an uncontrolled emergency within weeks. And the way this disease works, it can attack the weakest link, and then has the ability to spread from there.
The growing desire to get back to normal is understandable given our local COVID statistics, but we are in a race where the finishing line is when a vaccine is available, or at least an effective treatment. Until then, getting relaxed or complacent about the virus risks a potentially much more damaging second wave - as previous pandemics have shown.
So why am I telling you all of this? Because it is what informs the University's response to COVID-19 and frames the decisions we are making on how to return some activities to campus. Our success in the early stages of combatting COVID means we can now contemplate easing some restrictions on our activities - and this includes much of what we do at the University. But, I am sorry to say, things will not look 'normal' anytime soon.
As we begin the process of staging a return to campus, our initial focus will be on those parts of the University most impacted by our current restrictions. This includes researchers and research students whose work cannot be undertaken 'from home'. But we must do this while continuing to restrict the spread of disease, not just among researchers and students, but for staff who are necessary to keep buildings open and labs running safely. Social distancing will be a threshold expectation for everyone on campus at all times, so we may need to restrict access to labs - perhaps by granting access in 'shifts', for instance. We hope to start allowing these activities back on campus next week for a small group of people. But please be patient - we will need to phase these limited returns over several days and see what, if any impact this makes in our community.
Our next step, and we are targeting Tuesday 2 June, will be to more broadly open campus to staff, but with strict social distancing requirements in place. We will continue to encourage people to work from home where they can - maybe again in 'shifts' - to help limit close social interactions, and we will continue to be flexible in our work arrangements to support vulnerable members of our community, and those with caring responsibilities.
I am optimistic that our campus can once again be opened to students next semester - perhaps even slightly before for students who need to catch up on lab and other work that could not be done remotely. But we will not be able to have large classes of people, and we will continue to need to cater for remote participation in our classes - we know some students, especially those located overseas, will not be returning so quickly. I remain sincerely grateful to all those staff who have worked so hard to reimagine our education, and ask for your help and support through this next phase.
And if there is a fresh breakout of COVID-19, as painful as it will be, we may once again need to restrict access to campus - and all of us need to be thinking this way as we navigate the coming months of our work and studies. This approach applies to researchers with experiments that may need to be shut down suddenly, and especially to our teachers, whose teaching preparations need to reflect this unfortunate reality. You should know that I will not hesitate to make decisions that prioritise the health and wellbeing of our community.
Now is the time to start planning for next semester. As I have been saying recently, we all need to teach like our jobs depend on it - because they do. DVC Academic Grady Venville and her team can help you think about how to effectively and efficiently teach students who may be on campus, and simultaneously those who are learning remotely. Our students pre-COVID19 have already adopted digital learning practices - and this is a chance to better incorporate the new world of digitally enhanced teaching to provide the outstanding experience we intend to. I really like digitally enhanced teaching because I find I can get my students to learn more and in more complex ways in the same amount of time. And yes, while I don't teach a full class while Vice-Chancellor, I too am preparing to move a few lessons that I teach into this new-normal mode.
We are also going to need to have a conversation about actions we should take to help make us safer, but which impinge on us - things like testing, and keeping records of our contacts. These are activities that not everyone is going to be comfortable with, so striking the right balance is a discussion, no matter how hard, that will be worth having.
As you begin considering your own return to campus in the weeks and months ahead, you might enjoy hearing some predictions about how the university sector will look. My latest Zoomcast with Professor Andrew Norton, one of Australia's leading higher education policy commentators, contains some great analysis to listen to over a cold and windy weekend.
I would like to thank everyone for the constructive and positive way that they have set out to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis. We are doing everything we can to keep ANU safe and secure. We will continue to do our best to keep people up-to-date, even if it means talking about things that are hard to hear. Finally, please remember your feedback is important. Put it through to your Director or Dean. The enormous challenges of these past few weeks have re-enforced for me how much your voice matters in helping us get this right.