"Keep things in perspective"

The uncertainty created by the coronavirus continues to build. What precautions are ETH taking? In this interview, Ulrich Weidmann, Vice President for Infrastructure and Personnel Development discusses the current situation.

Mr Weidmann, the uncertainty created by the coronavirus continues to mount. The first cases have already been reported at the University of Zurich. What does that mean for ETH?

Ulrich Weidmann: Because of our size and international diversity, we are more exposed than other organisations. We have therefore set up a task force to continuously monitor the situation and constantly update the necessary measures. The priorities are to protect those people particularly at risk and to contain the spread of the virus. Despite all the uncertainty, it is important to keep things in perspective and remain calm. Until further notice, we should continue to work as before while strictly observing the necessary precautions.

ETH lectures are continuing. But certain events, such as the master’s graduation ceremony, have been cancelled following the ban up to 15 March imposed by the Federal Office for Public Health. What criteria actually apply here, and who decides what action to take?

In terms of health risk, there is currently no reason to suspend teaching sessions. However, students with existing health conditions are advised to stay at home. We have performed an individual risk assessment for the bigger events over the coming weeks and have decided that we need to cancel some of them. These include the master’s graduation ceremonies that take place before 15 March, or the spring series of events for Treffpunkt Science City. For events where the risk level is not considered to be high, the decision to go ahead lies with the academic departments and units, which are expected to take individual responsibility. The most important thing is to observe the precautions published on our website. Anyone with questions or uncertainties should get in touch with the contact provided on the website.

The university’s population of students and doctoral students is very mobile, and many of them come from high-risk regions such as Asia and Italy. SEC Singapore comes to mind. How is ETH approaching this?

Doctoral students returning from a high-risk country must self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in Switzerland and must not attend ETH events or enter ETH premises. The same applies to ETH employees and external visitors. Furthermore, special measures apply to people who belong to a high-risk group. Singapore has recently been classified as a high-risk area, and so travel to SEC Singapore should be avoided for the time being. Anyone returning from there also needs to self-isolate for 14 days. Over the next few days, more buses will be provided for the commuter service between the ETH Zentrum and Hönggerberg campuses in order to reduce overcrowding and the risk of transmission.

What guidance is ETH taking for the precautionary measures?

We are following the advice of the Federal Offers of Public Health and the Cantonal Medical Service. But we reserve the right to introduce more extensive precautionary measures where the university’s particular circumstances make this necessary to protect our students and employees.

What happens if the first case is reported at ETH? Will lectures be suspended?

If this happens, we will need to review the situation based on the information available at the time. This may lead to new precautionary measures, but not necessarily. As long as they are healthy, students are not essentially a high-risk group. Furthermore, we know them all by name, which makes it much easier to trace a potential line of infection. The Cantonal Medical Service is taking the lead here. We are working closely with them. More teaching must be arranged online. Fortunately we have a number of options allowing us to provide distance learning.

Where can ETH members and guests find updates on the coronavirus?

On the web: on the ETH Zurich homepage, as well as via News and the Internal News section. ETH will also be sending out regular updates by email to all ETH members.

Norbert Staub