Emerging from lockdown in Scotland

COVID-19 teasting signIt’s 15 weeks since I posted A month in coronavirus captivity. At that time I suggested that I might ‘revisit the themes discussed here in a future blog post and reflect on the changes in the intervening period’ – so here I am again!

For four further weeks following my earlier blog post, we in Scotland remained subject to strict lockdown rules, and took seriously the message to stay at home to protect everyone’s health and reduce the burden on the NHS. Throughout this period (and still) we thank the keyworkers, including those in businesses and public services that remained open to meet our basic needs at risk to their own health, especially NHS staff. We applauded them enthusiastically with our neighbours for 10 weeks up until the end of May. I even attempted to clap them one Wednesday night until it dawned on me that I had fallen foul of the ‘every day seems the same’ problem of pandemic times!

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The first relaxation of restrictions came on 29th May when members of two households were allowed to meet again – albeit outdoors – for the first time in two months. By the end of June some non-essential shops were able to reopen, and soon afterwards, on 6th July, bars and restaurants welcomed back customers outdoors. From 15th July, they could also serve customers inside their premises. This was the same date that hairdressers and barbers reopened. Currently we practise social distancing when visiting/hosting others at home, and carry masks with us whenever we plan to go to the shops. I have yet to take any form of public transport, and will not do so for as long as such travel is strongly discouraged.

My work, like most academic business, has continued remotely in my Edinburgh flat. A drawback of this is that ‘working at home’ often feels more like ‘living at work’. Much of a typical day is spent in video conference meetings on a variety of platforms – Microsoft Teams, Skype, Webex and Zoom. While I would much rather meet with my colleagues in person (and enjoy opportunities to catch up on office gossip, as well as work matters), one huge advantage of meeting online has been that our Visiting Professor Brian Detlor has been able to join our weekly research groups meetings from Canada. Similarly, we have saved quite a lot of travel time when working on grant proposals with colleagues from other institutions.

While regular meetings such as PhD supervisions, research project team updates, and career reviews can be conducted relatively easily online, these activities have been punctuated by others that one would really much rather attend in person, such as the book launch for The people in question by Professor Jo Shaw on 18th June. I would have also preferred to have conducted in person the interviews for our ESRC-SDS PhD studentship on natural language interfaces to support career decision-making of young people. That said, we were successful in appointing an excellent candidate.

There are some events that simply would not work with an online equivalent, despite the best of efforts. I feel particularly sorry for the students who should have crossed the stage in graduation ceremonies this summer, including the two newest PhD graduates from my research group: Dr Leo Appleton and Dr Lyndsey Middleton.

A few members of my team have participated at virtual conferences over the past four months, e.g the ASIST Europe conference on health information behaviours and XP2020 in June, and the Skills Development Scotland 3MT® competition in July. Indeed, the very first of these virtual events was the 2020 iSchool conference, which had been scheduled to take place in Sweden in the first week of the UK’s full lockdown. The shift to virtual conference delivery will continue beyond the summer with the two major information science conferences in the autumn no longer in South Africa (ISIC2020) nor the US (ASIST2020). My colleague Dr Bruce Ryan and I are currently discussing contingency plans should we not be able to host the third RIVAL project event in Edinburgh come November.

In this period when most Edinburgh Napier University staff are based off-campus, a good system has been set up for those of us who have an urgent reason to visit our offices. I have taken advantage of this twice – first to pick up some material for a report, and then a second time to collect the monitor from my office desk to replace the one at home that suddenly stopped working. (On the second occasion I forgot the keys to my office because I had taken them off my everyday key ring.) I have also ‘teased’ my colleagues on occasion on conference calls, appearing ‘in’ my office through the use of a background picture (admired by Jim Al-Khalili no less!)

Unlike me, a few colleagues have had a lot to do with campus in recent weeks. All those who hold departmental health and safety roles across the University, for example, have been heavily engaged in helping Facilities colleagues prepare campus for the new academic year. I understand that Dr Andreas Steyven, who looks after health and safety in my own School, has spent a considerable amount of time recently measuring cable lengths. This is to ensure that students will be suitably spaced out in the computing labs come the start of the autumn term.

Permanently working from home has resulted in deeply diminished sartorial standards. When I put away all my winter clothes a few weeks ago, I only brought out casual summer wear to replace them. I doubt that my smart summer wardrobe will see the light of day this year. Similarly, apart from on the evening of Monday 20th June when I attended a small wedding reception, I haven’t worn make-up or a necklace since the middle of March.

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I don’t mind admitting that I found the restrictions of lockdown very difficult at first. This was largely due to the instant deletion of (a) the social element of regular work on a busy university campus, and (b) my active social life. However, I have now adapted to spending all my time at home with just my husband for company. Previously we only ever played board games as a twosome on holiday, and most of the time only ever challenged one another to Scrabble. Now we are playing at least one game a day, and have added Carcassonne to our repertoire. I found this new (to me) game unfathomable to begin with, but now manage a win from time to time.

Our garden (both front and back) has also benefited greatly from our captivity – to the extent that the we have taken the plunge and are now mid-way through a full makeover at the back with new raised beds, lawn extension/levelling, pond repositioning, a new shed, and additional composting facilities. Indeed, like several others I know, I must confess that I have become a bit of a garden obsessive and wonder if I will ever want to go on holiday again during the growing season. Gardening is also beginning to count as exercise, alongside morning walks through the city (principally to the Water of Leith and Holyrood Park), bike rides (solo and tandem) on sunny days, and indoor cycling (when it’s raining).

Another unexpected bonus of this life of limited social contact is that I haven’t suffered a cold since February. This is most unusual for me: I usually pick up every bug that is doing the rounds of Edinburgh. My only ‘illnesses’ have been hayfever (quite bad the past two months) and insomnia.

Now, between the end of the summer resit season and the start of the 2020/21 academic year, I have the opportunity to take a ‘proper’ holiday (i.e. one in which I stay off email and avoid any temptation to take advantage to a quiet time to get on with some work!) This is likely to be my last blog post of the most unexpected year of my career – a prelude to 2020/21, which may well be one of the hardest.

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