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Department of Biochemistry

The Sanger Building entrance.

An update from the Head of Department, Professor Gerard Evan, regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic: The light at the end of the tunnel.


I hope you are all faring well – or at the very least, faring as well as can be expected. We've now been in lockdown since the 23rd of March, so are well into week 8. Things have been relatively quiet over the past few weeks as we, the School of Biological Sciences, and the University all struggle with developing policies and procedures for managing the lockdown in the face of sometimes inconsistent or incoherent government instructions. Clearly, everyone is trying to do her/his best in very extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances. But some are more effective than others.


Teaching, examining and staying afloat

This week, I want to especially honour the hard work from those involved in teaching as we organise and implement how Part II and Part III examinations will be set and assessed and what criteria will be used to assess Parts IA and IB. Hats off to all those involved for doing such an amazing job and to all those in the School of Biological Sciences who are liaising with our own folks to ensure uniformity of process.

The Department's COVID emergency Silver Team has also remained very active throughout, and my deep thanks to all those on the team and to Nick Smith for his outstanding Silver Team chairmanship through the crisis. It has also been great to have Jeanne Estabel, our incoming Departmental Administrator, participating in the process: Biochemistry is extraordinarily lucky to have the input from two amazing and experienced head administrators.

A special mention for Dee Scadden, whose dedicated and tenacious organisation and innovative problem solving has smoothed over many a complex and difficult situation, and whose expertise with digital education has payed dividends with our online teaching and examination plans, and our Departmental seminar programme. Plaudits too for Latika Soogumbur and her energy in keeping our Reddit site so much fun, and to Rhys Grant for his steady stewardship of our internet presence. And last, a personal thank you to Fiona Goodman, who has so ably and good-humouredly kept me on the straight and narrow through the long days of lockdown.

The seminar series is continuing to work well: there was a slight hiccup last week because of the bank holiday but normal service resumes this Friday at 3pm with presentations from Paul Dupree's laboratory on "The plant cell wall and its sweetness". We are still tinkering a bit with the format: the pre-recording of the talks works OK but the following Q&A session is not working as well as we would like, so we are exploring whether we can run the whole seminar and Q&A session on a real-time Zoom session that everyone can log into.

After the recent pause, where the major Departmental and University preoccupation has been with teaching and undergraduates, this week has seen a substantial shift in energy towards managing a phased transition back to operations – the so-called Crimson Phase. The initial University strategy is to proceed by baby steps with the immediate goal of achieving a maximum of 25% "normal occupancy" by the end of June, with some buildings hopefully opening rather sooner (more of this below). For a number of obvious reasons, the Schools of Biological and Clinical Sciences are near the front of the queue for re-opening. This reflects the intensely experimental nature of much of the work we do and its overall sensitivity to being put on hold, in particular when it comes to maintenance and care of plants and animals. So, at last some daylight at the end of this tunnel.

Nonetheless, the job of phased re-opening of the Department is a lot more complicated than the initial close down. The whole re-opening process will proceed in accordance with government advice – which may change at any time but right now seems to lie in the direction of relaxing the lockdown to some degree. Within this national framework, the decision to open buildings is the responsibility of the University Buildings Task Force in consultation with Schools and Departments. Individual departments will have a significant level of autonomy, albeit with the caveat that the responsibility (for anything going wrong) rests entirely with each Department Head.


There is a cunning plan

Even for the limited, ~25% occupancy, re-opening currently projected, procedures will be demanding and comprehensive, guided as they are principally by Health and Safety. Each of the ~380 buildings owned or occupied by the University, including many clinical buildings at the Biomedical Campus, needs to be certified as safe by the University's Estates Management Office before it may be re-populated at any level.

You may recall that University buildings were placed in three categories: Category 1 Buildings doing essential work, like the Sanger Building, have stayed open at some significant level throughout. Category 2 Buildings in which essential services and facilities needed to be maintained, such as the Hopkins Building, have been depopulated except for essential staff. Category 3 Buildings have been completely shut down (Biochemistry has no such buildings).

Before Estates will re-certify any building they need to be sure that a complete risk assessment and emergency operating procedure is in place, that all infrastructures (water, lighting, heating, alarms, gases, piping, vacuum lines, cryogens, etc.) are secure (e.g. water tanks free of Legionella) and operating properly, that fire wardens/marshals and radiation officers are in place and that necessary standard Health and Safety procedures are being followed. With only 25% occupancy, a variety of new physical procedures will be needed to minimize social contact as much as possible: special signage, one way routes around the buildings, single person use of toilets at any one time, effective and frequent cleaning of public areas, door push plates and handles, and so on.

The 25% limitation on occupancy will stand for the foreseeable future and, of course, could be rapidly reversed should a new epidemic break out. How we manage this huge reduction amongst the research personnel is a daunting question and will in great part be the responsibility of individual Research Group Heads. Nonetheless, our expectation is that preference will be given to those postgraduate students and post-doctoral fellows under the most time pressure – most obviously, 3rd year graduate students and RAs and SRAs approaching the end of their funding/fellowships. We are not envisioning people ever working in alternating shifts over each 24-hour period. However, it is possible that personnel could take it in turns working in their laboratories for a block of, say, a few days. We will just have to see how things develop.

The great news is that our superb and foresighted Silver Team have all the risk assessments, occupancy plans and procedures in hand. Both our Hopkins and Sanger Buildings have been fully maintained throughout the lockdown, thanks in great part to our wonderful Maintenance Team, so certification by Estates Management should be straightforward and rapid. Once certified that our buildings are safe, it is up to the Department to ensure that activities taking place in our buildings are conducted safely. For this, detailed risk assessments of all research and administrative activities will need to be completed. Once again, we are well advanced with this and almost all are already in place.

If all goes well, we hope to re-open Sanger followed by Hopkins in the first half of June. Things may change, of course, and there is still quite a bit of work to do, but the light at the end of the tunnel is real and approaching fast.


So well done everyone! It looks like we're going to make it through after all. I'm awed by your fortitude, your calm and your patience and can't wait to see you all again before too long.

With all best wishes,



The Sanger Building entrance.

Credit: Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge.


Professor Gerard Evan,
Head of Department and Sir William Dunn Professor of Biochemistry

Publication date

15 May 2020