Published on 22 March 2021
Sir David Bell KCB, the University of Sunderland’s Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, has commented on life a year on from the imposition of the first national lockdown.
I have a mix of feelings as we mark the anniversary of the first national lockdown.
For me, it feels much longer than a year ago that we were all together on campus; working, socialising, and enjoying our normal, day-to-day lives.
Then, everything changed and we entered what, at times, felt like a bad dream as everything we had previously taken for granted was upended.
Yet when I look at what the University – and by that I mean our students and staff – has achieved in 12 months, I am amazed by the resilience, commitment and adaptability we have seen across our community.
It began with the pride I felt as we made our contribution to combatting COVID.
I watched in awe as our graduating nurses headed onto the NHS frontline last April, right at the height of the pandemic.
Then there was pioneering innovation which saw the University design and manufacture thousands of coronavirus-proof door-openers for businesses across the world.
We would go on to donate our fully equipped training ambulance to the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), along with offering an advanced specialist piece of diagnostic equipment for help with testing to one of the region’s hospitals.
There are so many inspiring stories – too many to tell – of students mobilising to help, support, and care for members of the University community.
The international students – unable to travel home – supporting each other; trainee teachers helping to home-school children of staff members; Team Sunderland organising online fitness classes to make sure we could stay moving.
Money being raised at Christmas to support our students who had experience of care or were estranged from their families; and, even now, the trainee paramedics who are taking the vulnerable to vaccination centres – the list goes on and on.
We also witnessed staff working on the frontline to look after and teach the students who remained here, coming onto campus day-in and day-out when most of their colleagues were working from home.
It was this willingness to support – this all-encompassing embrace as a life-changing institution – which earned us the title of University of the Year for Social Inclusion in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021.
And throughout the year, a small army of frontline staff have been on site 24/7, working to keep our campuses secure, clean, maintained and safe for everyone.
Colleagues have also provided a range of services to our students; from face-to-face teaching, through support for those in accommodation, to library assistance – to name but a few.
We cannot thank them enough.
Of course, this anniversary is – finally, it seems – bringing sustained hope as restrictions are eased and the vaccine roll-out continues apace – an effort our medical students are contributing to by giving up their weekends and helping to vaccinate the people of this region.
Maybe there is something particularly appropriate about the timing as the bleakness of winter gives way and spring beckons. Yet, there is still quite a way to go and we cannot, and must not, underestimate the continuing pressures that many of us feel.
But again there are grounds for hope, as the past year has demonstrated that we can be both strong and caring, both secure and flexible, both cautious and pioneering, and both predictable and innovative.
All of this augurs well for the future as, together, we create a new normal; one that is familiar, yet different too as we build on the knowledge we have acquired about how best our students learn and how we can work even more effectively.
So our message continues to be one of care; looking after ourselves and each other. And as has been the case throughout the pandemic, the health, safety and wellbeing of students and staff remains our top priority.
As Vice-Chancellor, I have been privileged to witness students and staff going above and beyond to ensure that we offer the best University experience possible in such difficult times.
Inevitably, as we move into a new phase, we will come up against new issues. But based on our response since last March, I can say from experience that we are ready, willing and able to meet them head-on.
In my blogs, videos, messages and online updates, I hope I have shared how much I appreciate the efforts that have been made – and continue to be made – to keep the University moving in the right direction. I repeat those thanks today.
But, perhaps now is a good time to thank those extended ‘helping-hands’; the grandparents looking after young children so parents can work; the carers juggling their jobs with support work; the single parents working flexible hours just to keep going.
There will be a time when we will all look back and talk about the pandemic that started in 2020 – the year that many of us worked and studied from home.
In the meantime, and when we all eventually return in person to our campuses, we will bring back with us very different experiences of the past year. Yet, I know that we will be kind and thoughtful to each other, in precisely the way that has characterised our response to this, the most extraordinary year of our lives.