ICL redundancies “risk undermining” Covid-19 vaccine development

As Imperial College London plans to shed a quarter of staff in its information and communication technology department, the institution’s Covid-19 response team says its work would be “impossible” without ICT support

Plans to cut staff at Imperial College London (ICL) could have a deleterious affect on the fight against coronavirus, claim members of the institution’s Covid-19 response team. Last Wednesday (June 3), the college told the 281 staff in its information and communication technology (ICT) department that cost-cutting restructuring would leave 75 of them redundant.

Imperial’s Covid-19 response team has been advising the government on how to respond to the pandemic, with its modelling of the virus’ spread helping inform the decision to go into lockdown. Together with Oxford University, it is one of two UK teams being given millions of pounds in government funding to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. Dr Samir Bhatt is one of its members.

“For weeks now, all of our Covid-19 response work has had to be done remotely,” he said. “It goes without saying that our work is of significant public health importance, both within the UK and around the world, and it would have been impossible without the Imperial ICT staff and their heroic efforts in the midst of incredibly trying circumstances.”

It is incredible that Imperial would risk undermining the fight against Covid-19 – Jo Grady, UCU

Fellow team member, Dr Seth Flaxman, a senior author of multiple reports into the pandemic, was equally categorical in asserting ICT’s importance: “Since I joined Imperial’s Covid-19 response team to help with statistical modelling, all of my work has happened remotely. Today [June 8], my team has published a major paper in Nature quantifying lives saved by lockdown, for which we relied heavily on specialised computing services supported by Imperial’s ICT staff.”

The University and College Union (UCU) joined the call for a rethink to the job losses. “The Covid-19 response team’s groundbreaking work relies on the crucial support of the very ICT staff Imperial is threatening to sack,” said UCU general secretary, Jo Grady. “It is incredible that Imperial would risk undermining the fight against Covid-19 by starting an eight-month restructure to get rid of over a quarter of the staff in such a vital department in the midst of this global pandemic. We want to work with Imperial and make the case for government to provide the funding the sector needs, but we will fight to keep every member of staff.”

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In response, an Imperial spokeswoman insisted that “our Covid-19 response team will continue to receive first-rate ICT support”. The reform, she said, was designed “to provide the best support for our world-class research and education. This project predates the pandemic, but the urgent need to support remote working, teaching and learning made these changes even more important. We are consulting with and supporting our staff who are affected by these changes.”

In related news, ICL has founded a new social enterprise, VacEquity Global Health, to bring its mooted Covid-19 vaccine to the world. For the UK and poor countries overseas, it will waive royalties and charge only low cost-plus prices to maintain the enterprise’s work, speed up global distribution and back new research. Professor Robin Shattock, the leader of ICL’s bid to develop a vaccine, said yesterday (June 10) that a vaccine could be available “in the first two quarters of next year if things go extraordinarily well”.

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