Public transport and future pandemics – is there a Plan B?

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By Dr Steve Melia, Senior Lecturer in Planning and Transport

Demand for trains is likely to rise again “assuming at some point there will be a vaccine and we will return to some sort of normal” said the Chief Executive of HS2 recently. His assumption might be right, but vaccines are rarely 100% effective. What if they don’t eradicate the risk and social distancing continues to constrain the capacity of public transport? Many ecologists are now warning that human interference with natural systems will cause more pandemics in future. What would happen to public transport if pandemics and social distancing became a recurring feature of 21st century life? What is Plan B?

Six months after the lockdown caused patronage to collapse, I was going to write about the strange silence of the transport world on these questions. But perhaps that silence is not so strange. Whose interests would it serve to acknowledge those possibilities? Whose ideology would it bolster? Clearly not the public transport industry or its supporters. Nor would it help the petrolheads’ case for unrestrained driving. So, at the risk of provoking the ire of all sides, I want to consider what might happen and how we might collectively respond if public transport remains constrained in the longer-term.

A few articles on these questions, from elsewhere in the world, have raised the nightmare scenario, where fear of infection causes people to shun public transport and flee cities, reversing the past few decades of urban regeneration. In countries like the USA and Australia with low population densities, that would gently accelerate the spread of car-based sprawl, which had slowed but never stopped. In Britain, and particularly England, that prospect would be far more serious. As I have written elsewhere, the claim that England has plenty of land available for development without destroying what remains of our natural environment is unfortunately untrue.

In recent decades, UK governments have tempered their push for more house building with planning policies encouraging densification of central urban areas. I am looking at the result of that strategy through my window in central Bristol – 375 flats on a site the size of a football pitch with only a handful of parking spaces. This type of urban intensification depends on high-capacity public transport for new residents, who will be unable to own cars because there is no space for them. Remove that capacity and the densification of cities will become unviable. Rural areas will suburbanise and suburban roads will fill with congested traffic.

Social distancing regulations are not the only problem; Covid has reduced people’s willingness to travel in close proximity to others. When I have asked people in the industry: ‘what if things don’t return to normal?’ their answers are all around funding, which is hardly a solution for the long-term. I recently met a government transport official who had considered the longer-term risks. He said “there is no solution”, and within life as we know it, he is right. Trains and railway stations could conceivably be converted to allow people to travel in separate compartments without inhaling each others’ breath, but at a cost that would make HS2 look like a bargain. Buses would have to be replaced by some entirely different type of vehicle. The capacity of both would be permanently reduced, which would not solve the problem. People could continue to drive cars but not at higher concentrations in urban areas, so they wouldn’t solve the problem either.

If there is a workable Plan B it would have to transform both public and private transport. The early hype around autonomous vehicles has subsided as researchers (including some of my colleagues) have shown how some of the barriers to full automation cannot be solved by technology alone. To allow autonomous vehicles to interact with pedestrians in dense urban areas would require big changes to the way we organise our cities. Whether those changes are made or not, we can expect incremental automation such as platooning on motorways.

Putting all those factors together with the imperative to decarbonise transport we could imagine a world where autonomous electric pods, smaller than today’s cars, follow a network more limited than today’s roads. They could travel at low speeds through urban areas until they join interurban networks, where they could travel in platoons at higher speeds. Similar principles could transform the way we move freight into, out of, and between urban areas. If you think that vans and lorries are the only ways of moving freight around cities, take a look at Joel Crawford’s books about carfree cities. Such a system could replace the motorway and rail networks, reducing the overall land-take of transport networks. I float that idea, not as “the solution”, but to illustrate the scale of the transformation that Plan B might require.

Of course, we might be lucky; Covid-19 might fade into history and future pandemics might be more benign – or not, so where does that leave us in the meantime?

The case for joined-up cycle routes and traffic-free environments for walking remains relevant under any conceivable scenario. So will the need to remove or replace vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Road building remains a damaging option under any scenario. But should we be pressing ahead with plans to build big public transport infrastructure at this moment? Is it possible to genuinely future-proof such infrastructure?

My colleague Professor Glenn Lyons has written some useful articles about planning in uncertain situations. But on the specific questions I can give no definitive answers; I can point you to no relevant research. I can only conclude that we must break the silence and start treating these possibilities more seriously.

This article was first published in Transport Times

Learning from lockdown: how teachers adapted to online learning

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By Dr Jane Carter, Senior Lecturer in Primary Education

Learning to read is perhaps the most important thing we will learn to do in our primary education. There is a huge amount of evidence that identifies that being able to read impacts on our future social, emotional, economic and academic success. Not only that, a failure to learn to read comes at a great cost: to the economy; to public health; to our diet and safety and in terms of democratic and community engagement.

When Covid struck and schools closed their doors and migrated to online learning, there was a deep and real concern for the most vulnerable learners: those who had been identified as needing additional support and specialist intervention; and those with few books at home and parents lacking the confidence and resources to help their children.

I have been awarded a small grant from the British Educational Research Association to study the impact of coronavirus on one-to-one reading for children in need of additional support, with a focus on the innovations and challenges experienced by teachers.

Some Bristol schools have specialist reading teachers who implement the Reading Recovery intervention programme for the lowest attaining children in Year 1 (aged 6) and these teachers also use their skills and knowledge to support reading programmes for children throughout the primary school age groups. It is these teachers who leapt into action when Covid struck and who are the focus of my study.

The national lockdown saw many schools and teachers forced to adapt to online learning. Many were innovative in their practice and in numerous cases, online learning was a success. One such school is Glenfrome Primary in Bristol which has worked tirelessly to support young readers. The head teacher has worked alongside the school’s Reading Recovery Teacher to ensure the children who were receiving one-to-one support before lockdown were able to continue their one-to-one reading online. You may think that this is an easy task, but just take a moment to think about the hurdles that need to be overcome:

  1. Do these young readers (6 years old) have access to appropriate IT hardware to engage in online learning?
  2. With the child at home and the reading recovery teacher at home, what are the safeguarding implications of one-to-one online tutoring?
  3. Are there GDPR issues?
  4. How can a book be shared online – both the reading recovery teacher and the child need to be able to see the text?
  5. How do you engage a child on screen with reading when the child is already reluctant to read, finds reading difficult and is often easily distracted?

These were just a few of the hurdles that the Reading Recovery Teacher navigated. She also developed banks of scanned books to use; enabled parents to learn more about supporting their child with reading (helping also with the IT issues and addressing some of the safeguarding concerns); working with publishers around copyright and adapting sessions to address the engagement of each child.

Lockdown uncovered numerous challenges and barriers with online learning, but it also proved how effective it can be. In the case of Glenfrome School, the children made accelerated progress with their reading during this time. The one-to-one reading was also a lifeline for some families, particularly those that were feeling isolated and alone during lockdown.

By carrying out my research study, I hope to uncover the practical approaches to supporting the teaching of reading online and learn how teachers, parents and pupils overcame barriers during the national lockdown to continue learning. With an increasing number of local lockdowns already taking place around the UK, this study is key to identifying how best to support pupils with their reading online. The findings will help schools and teachers to support children with their learning in future lockdown scenarios or in the event of children and households isolating, class closures or full school closures.

With a new academic year underway, we know that education will continue to be affected by the pandemic for the foreseeable future. It is crucial that we, as educators, continue to adapt our approach and overcome challenges. And, just as we ensure that our children continue to learn, we too must learn from the lessons of lockdown.

The impact of lockdown on body image and eating behaviours

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By Dr Helena Lewis-Smith, Senior Research Fellow, and Sharon Haywood, Research Associate, from the Centre for Appearance Research

Lockdown has changed our lives in unprecedented ways. Not only has it transformed how we study and work, but it has also impacted how we socialise. Social media usage has soared to new heights, helping us feel less isolated, but could spending more time on your favourite social media site bring negative effects?

Long before lockdown, researchers from various countries established that a significant link exists between social media use and body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Since lockdown, the message of “bettering” ourselves has been persistent, bringing with it a surge of diet and fitness tutorials, usually featuring “ideal” bodies. Past research has shown that the popular social media trend of “fitspiration”—intended to inspire people to exercise—can lead us to compare our bodies with those we see online, which can then increase body dissatisfaction, so this heightened pressure to be healthy might actually be counterproductive to our well-being. Adding to these demands is Covid-related fat-phobic content, such as memes about pre- and post-lockdown bodies, making us feel ashamed if we’ve gained weight. When we combine all these factors, it’s unsurprising that early research has identified adverse impacts on people’s eating behaviours and mental health.

Researchers in Australia found that since lockdown began, adults in the general population reported engaging in more dieting behaviours and binge eating. They also found that individuals with a history of disordered eating were particularly vulnerable to maladaptive changes to their eating and exercise habits. In the US and Netherlands research revealed that people with an eating disorder are facing greater challenges in moving towards recovery. Not only did they report worsening of their symptoms, but they also noted increases in anxiety and concerns related to their overall mental health.

Collectively, this early research highlights the importance of providing psychological support to individuals with disordered eating or a diagnosis of an eating disorder (past or present). For those struggling with this, we recommend contacting Beat, the UK’s largest eating disorder charity, which provides free support to anyone affected by disordered eating. Here at UWE Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research (CAR), we are currently running a study to explore the impact of lockdown on recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating to help inform knowledge of what support might be helpful. Although recruitment is presently on hold, additional participants may be required. If you (or someone you know) is interested in taking part, please add your contact details here.

Even though it seems that lockdown is coming to an end, the possibility of a second lockdown later this year is possible, so here are some tips on how to cope with body image and food wobbles—that you can also put to use when not in lockdown!

  • Avoid getting pulled into comparing yourself with others on social media. While it’s completely natural, it just makes us feel worse. Diversify the content you’re following so your feed contains a wide variety of body types and messages that promote self-acceptance.
  • Avoid viewing and sharing Covid-19 weight-shaming memes. Not only does it stigmatise larger bodies, it may also trigger negative thoughts about your own body.
  • Practice self-compassion. Difficult emotions are part of the human experience. Treat yourself with the kindness and patience that you would someone you love.
  • Remember that it’s natural for our bodies to change throughout different stages of life and when our routines change. Be kind to yourself if you’re eating due to stress, loneliness or boredom – this is a challenging time! Consider other ways to self-soothe, such as reading, going for a walk, or calling a friend.
  • Engage in movement that you enjoy and adjust your expectations about exercise. Instead of exercising to compensate for more sedentary behaviour or changes in eating habits, focus on engaging in physical activity that stimulates your mind and body. For example, you might want to play rounders with some friends, go for a walk with family members, or do an online dance class.
  • Appreciate what your body can do. Rather than focusing on what it looks like, shift your attention to the functionality of your body. Think of all the amazing things your body allows you do: Perhaps it’s playing football with your kids, taking in the fragrance of your favourite flowers, or restoring itself with sleep.

For more tips and strategies, listen to CAR’s 49th Appearance Matters podcast episode Managing Body Image and Food Wobbles During Lockdown.

Photo credit via Instagram @Meg.Boggs (www.megboggs.com)

Hosting a hospital – how an NHS Nightingale hospital was created in three weeks at UWE Bristol

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By Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor at UWE Bristol

As the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold of the country, universities have radically changed how they operate to best support students and staff, and UWE Bristol is no different. But alongside all of our efforts to ensure that our students’ academic and student experience is able to continue virtually, we have also found ourselves as one of the hosts for an NHS Nightingale Hospital on our Frenchay campus.

Creating a 300-bed hospital in our Exhibition and Conference Centre (ECC) has been no mean feat, but when we were approached by the NHS, it was a very easy decision for us to offer everything we could to help. Along with many universities, UWE Bristol has a very long history of being embedded in its local community, and if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of community support and collaboration to tackle the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in. Universities are uniquely placed to help in the current crisis, so we knew that no matter how complex the creation of this hospital would be, we were ready to get involved.

Although the prospect of having a fully operational intensive care bed hospital on our campus has been daunting at times, the reality of the construction has been remarkably smooth. I have been on the project from the outset with fantastic colleagues at all levels and disciplines playing their part in delivering this facility. Our collective effort has given hope to NHS frontline staff, and the hospital is now ready if needed to treat the sickest patients battling COVID-19.

We were first approached in late March, when a team from land surveyors CBRE, the NHS, plus the Army Logistics team, arrived onto campus to survey the ECC and surrounding area. A project team was established and after that things began to move extremely quickly, with a full project Board established two days later and increasing numbers of Kier, NHS and contractor staff arriving on site.

We collaborated with the NHS and Kier leads from the very beginning, which was essential as there was an ambitious 15 day build plan to deliver 300 fully ventilated beds in one building – one that is usually put to use for everything from student exams to events to weddings, so it has been incredible to witness how it has been turned into such a different facility.

For me, one of the most important aspects of this whole project has been ensuring that we are not simply a geographical location for the hospital but a partner in this endeavour, consistently looking for new ways to support and adapt to having this facility on campus. To that end, we provided a bespoke 2 day training programme for volunteers to be able to work safely in the Nightingale which was designed and delivered for over 350 people over the Easter break, and UWE Bristol Academic and Technical Teams also started to train clinical leads and staff in the Nightingale protocols. We have been providing 1000s of litres of disinfectant and hand gel to the site, GP, practices, pharmacies and even the local businesses such as Rolls Royce and Airbus to keep the economy moving, and now we have begun making face visors in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

For now, the hospital stands ready if required, and the NHS continue to have our full support. Following the official opening of the hospital last week, we are now working very closely with NHS colleagues across the region to determine how the facility might change and adapt as the disease progresses and clinical needs change.

The fact that we are host to such an important part of the UK’s fight against COVID-19 is a source of great pride to our staff and students. While having a hospital spring up in the space of two weeks across from my office is not something I could ever have predicted at the start of the year, everyone here has risen to the challenge with all the energy, willingness to collaborate and community spirit I’ve come to expect from our students and staff. This is us at our best, and demonstrates how we and the higher education sector can play such a vital role in the current pandemic.

This article was first published by Universities UK

Isolation – Film & TV drama might be best coping mechanisms

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By Professor Jane Roscoe, Pro Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education

The world is streaming more than ever before as millions of us are living in lockdown and turning to television, films and gaming to fill our time. But immersing ourselves in TV drama and film is not just about relaxing or being entertained by our favourite shows, turning to Netflix or a drama boxset provides us with the opportunity to explore and evaluate our anxieties over the coronavirus and helps us to deal with the challenges of our new reality.

TV drama is the perfect cultural site in which to explore and work out our anxieties over Covid-19. As we are self-isolating, or consciously limiting the time we spend outside of the home, we are left with our fears and anxieties – could screen drama help us?

Television and film have always been a site in which we tell stories about the world around us. Watching and talking about those stories has given us many opportunities to build our own narratives and rehearse our thoughts and ideas. Many have argued our collective memories of key events such as the holocaust, have been in part, built through the screen representations of those events.

Fearful

Facing a pandemic and fast-changing circumstances has made many of us feel anxious, fearful, uncertain and isolated. These feelings are not new, the screen industry has produced a lifetime’s worth of content that explores, exploits and engages us in these very emotions. Importantly, it has also created a safe space in which we can engage in ways that can help us understand the very things that frighten us.

Not surprisingly, many of us have been watching Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011), Outbreak (Petersen, 1995) and Pandemic (Suits, 2016) alongside all the news and documentary productions exploring Covid-19. Documentaries and news provide us with facts, statistics and commentary on what is happening around us, but dramas give us the opportunity to explore how we feel. We are allowed to be scared and horrified as we watch.

While we may have to ‘keep it together’ for our family and friends in our day to day of lockdown life, these moments, when we deeply engage in the narratives of these films, provides the relief of feeling. We also get to see how it might feel to follow through different scenarios. What happens if I get sick? What happens if……

Screen drama is a safe space because it is a site of the imagination, of make believe, magic and the suspension of disbelief. We talk of ‘losing ourselves in a story’, of the ‘dreamlike qualities of a drama’ and often refer to the pleasures escaping into and through a complex narrative. Drama opens up the freedom for producers, actors, and audiences to go deeply into this space, to make sense of the world with no other obligation that to explore the story. In an era of fake news, drama doesn’t need to pretend to be anything other than it is. We are free to explore the narrative, the characters and the scenarios. Perhaps the relief is that we can watch and feel without any obligation to act.

Reinvents world

Screen drama brings the world to us; places, people, events that we may not have experience of, or sometimes, even want. Drama reinvents the world every day, minute by minute, building screen worlds of fantasy and strangeness, alongside those that are more realistic and familiar. Costume dramas create versions of the past allowing us to imagine what was, and science fiction presents versions of our future and the possibility of imaging what could be. Every day, drama is creating a space to imagine aspects of our lives, and those of others in the world around us. Watching these dramas connects us with characters dealing with some of the fears and worries we are also experiencing. That is both a comfort, and the start of a journey to think about how we might cope with those fears. The beauty of these screen dramas is that we can do this in our own space, and at our own pace.

So as we face this new reality of Covid-19, watching those dramas about pandemics, the apocalypse, the end of the world, is not just about judging whether the dramatists got it right or not, but more about allowing us to feel the fear, and use it to help us understand how to get through it.

This article was first published in The London Economic

Providing essential training for frontline staff working at Nightingale Hospital Bristol

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By Dr Marc Griffiths, PVC and Executive Dean, Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences

Over the last week the Glenside Campus has been set up to receive volunteers who will be working as frontline staff at the Bristol Nightingale hospital when it opens on the 18th April. The development and preparation for frontline staff training has been a collaborative effort between the University and colleagues from the NHS.

This approach further supports our excellent partnership working with NHS organisations across the region and many of our academic and technical staff were working over the Bank Holiday weekend to ensure facilities were ready for training purposes. The clinical simulation spaces at our Glenside Campus are equipped to deliver frontline training to 1,000 volunteers over the coming weeks and our staff have risen to the challenge.

Colleagues from across the local and regional NHS have come together with UWE staff to create a local version of the London Nightingale Hospital staff training programme. Having a campus that is equipped to deliver staff training on the required scale for the Bristol Nightingale site is testament to the investment by the University in clinical skills and simulation training for our health and social care students.

UWE Bristol has over 3,000 health and social care students and annually graduates approximately 1,500 practitioners into the local and regional health and social care system. Our integrated working with NHS partners and state of the art simulation learning facilities create the required environment for the local and regional health and social care workforce pipeline.