Herts And Minds Meet COVID-19 Challenge

The University of Hertfordshire has taken a positive and proactive approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic with the resumption of sport services a priority. TASS talked to frontline staff Fiona Scott and Liam Connor and discovered how a dedicated team is continuing to meet an unprecedented challenge.

TASS: How long were your sport facilities shut?

Fiona Scott (Head of Physical Performance & Academic Liaison, University of Hertfordshire): We were almost forced into shutting early because we had a student test positive for COVID-19 before the official lockdown date. Whereas a lot of gyms closed on March 20, as per the government guidelines, we closed on March 17. We offered some outdoor provision from June 1 and reopened our performance gym on June 9. So it was 12 weeks before we were able to get inside again – it was a long wait but during this time we offered online sessions, programmes, and other services such as workshops for our athletes. It was a good time to be proactive and complete tasks like staff training, intern mentoring and preparation for next year.

TASS: How soon after lockdown did you begin to plan for a partial reopening of the facilities at the University of Hertfordshire Sports Village?

FS: I also sit on the senior management team at the Sports Village and all through lockdown we’ve had a daily catch up at 11am to find out where we’re at, what’s changed and what we’re able to do. Staffing and reopening procedures have been on the agenda from the beginning and our plans have been constantly revised to reflect the changing environment. I think Liam (Connor, Strength and Conditioning Coach and TASS Lead, University of Hertfordshire) can vouch for the fact that we’ve been pretty proactive from day one. Even in what have been very unusual circumstances we’ve managed to stay pretty calm and collected and made changes to reflect the revised guidelines. It was towards the end of May when the advice from the Government around a return to elite sport was updated and we felt we were in a position to reopen the S&C section of the Sports Village for elite athletes. Because we’re only a small part of a large facility – there’s a swimming pool, climbing wall, sports halls, outdoor pitches, conference rooms etc., we had to be certain that what we wanted to do would be both safe and financially viable. A lot of work had been done to ensure the facilities would be as safe as possible and it became financially viable when one of our tenants, a private physio company, confirmed they were keen to resume work. We opened our doors twice weekly in June with an option to offer more if the demand was there.

TASS: What has been the toughest challenge you’ve faced so far on the road to reopening?

FS: Ensuring we are up to date with the Government Guidelines and getting the risk assessments correct has been incredibly time consuming but is essential to get right as we’re being held accountable for our safety measures at a time when there is a lot of concern surrounding the spread of coronavirus. We need to be stringent, thorough and consistent at every stage. We’ve spent years fine tuning existing risk assessments and all of a sudden we’ve had to put a new document together within the space of a few weeks. COVID-19 presents us with a series of novel risks and our operational manager suggested it would save time in the long term to write a completely new risk assessment document relating to the current situation that sits alongside the current one. So we’ve come out of lockdown with a practical and workable document which stands us in good stead for the short term future. We realised that one or two aspects weren’t quite right after we opened the S&C area for the first time, but we’ve amended the risk assessment and it’s a work in progress, especially as Government guidelines change.

Liam Connor: I’d echo what Fiona says, the fact that we had conversations about reopening safely from very early on means that we’re now ahead of the game. When new guidelines do come out we’re able to react quickly and positively, given the groundwork that’s been done and the detail within the risk assessment document. As soon as we knew we were able to reopen the outdoor and indoor spaces, we put our own policies into practice and recognised the value of our preparation and planning.

TASS: Now that you’ve had time to reflect on the staged reopening of the Sports Village, do you feel as if it’s been a success?

LC: I think it’s gone really well. We definitely needed to reflect on a few little things to make the whole system more effective – there was the odd thing missed here or the odd touch point that needed reassessing there. But having been on site on numerous occasions since we reopened, I’ve noticed that there is an efficient process in place and the athletes’ engagement has been excellent. They are fully aware of the guidelines and that awareness has made for a very comfortable situation. I’m in constant communication with Fiona and our main priority right now is looking at how we can continue to improve a tried and tested approach.

TASS: How close are you to reopening the main gym?

FS: The Government guidelines have just been updated to allow the opening of leisure centres from Saturday 25th July onwards which we are very excited for. We’re currently in the process of updating our opening hours and staffing rotas, whilst printing appropriate signage, and creating some videos and communications to help customers return to the facility. We’ve been using our time productively throughout lockdown and whilst the facility has been closed we’ve had staff on site on a few occasions. We’re using ourselves as guinea pigs to practice walking through what the site will look like with restrictions in place and we’ve rearranged the gym so that there’s an effective one-way system. We’ve been fortunate to have our Director of Sport take such a proactive approach and have already had a couple of guest speakers come in to assist us with staff training.  One of these was Dr Paul Bedford who’s best known as the ‘retention guru’. He talked us through how best to communicate with clients and customers in the post-lockdown era with an emphasis on remaining positive. He pointed out that we’ll be dealing with a vast range of personalities and some people will cope with the changes better than others. First and foremost, we want to be safe but we also want to retain our staff and members and continue to run a successful business and facility.


LC: Everything has been rehearsed and we’re in a great position to offer the best service possible to our clients and customers in a Covid-secure way when we re-open. I’m totally confident that the system we have in place will work. We’ve been refining the processes that we have in place and hearing from experts like Paul has reinforced our view that we’re doing things in the right way. Paul’s advice about retention and reinforcing the right behaviours has proved invaluable and I feel as if we’re a step ahead when it comes to being able to react to and adapt to any new guidelines. Of course there will be some people who are anxious about using a gym again after everything that’s happened and we’re here to ensure their experience is as comfortable as possible.

TASS: As an S&C coach how have you found the shift from normality to lockdown and a gradual easing of restrictions?

LC: Some things have felt a little weird and of course it’s not been possible to follow the normal coaching process. Just a little thing like helping an athlete load a bar while they’re doing a different exercise – that’s not something I can do right now to minimise touchpoints. But in terms of the overall coaching process there haven’t been too many changes and I’ve enjoyed some really good engagement with the athletes. We can communicate effectively and still keep our distance. In many respects it’s felt quite normal since we reopened the S&C facility. The gym environment has felt relatively familiar.

TASS: How have the athletes adapted to the changes?

LC: Their approach and behaviour has been exemplary. The level of athlete that we’re working with dictates that they have a very professional outlook. They don’t want to waste any more time and don’t want to miss out on making the best of our facilities. They’re grateful to be in a position where they can get ahead of the game and they’re not going to do anything to put themselves or their future at risk. They’re constantly using the hand sanitiser without being asked to, they’re always ready to get their temperature taken upon arrival and they’re following every instruction to the letter. I’m not surprised but I’m still very impressed. The attitude of the athletes has helped us to transition from a period of closure to a phased opening and proved that it’s possible to offer a valuable, albeit currently limited, service again.