New Year, New Term, Same Lockdown

January 27th, 2021

Thomas Freitag

Following a quiet holiday season in the United Kingdom, I was sad to see that the nation would be under lockdown for the majority of the Lent term. As one of the few Churchill Scholars not working in a laboratory, I knew that this would ensure most of my education would be conducted digitally, learning about the complexities of the state’s relationship with science via Zoom. Despite this sad turn of events, I am comforted by those I have the privilege of being surrounded by.

Churchill College, despite only hosting roughly a quarter of its normal student body, is still quite lively- with its members sharing the experience of a quiet Cambridge. I have been lucky, with my household being one of the few on campus that is still fully populated. In spite of the pandemic, the uncertainties of travel, and the disruptions to daily life, we have done our best to celebrate the moments of levity- coming together for the Christmas holiday, New Years, and a number of birthdays. It would have been much more difficult to remain at college without this continuous support and although this COVID school year continues to throw curveballs, I am glad to have both my household and fellow scholars beside me during these difficult times.

Although the pandemic continues to be a thorn in our collective sides, it is crucial to recognize its importance as a learning experience. When my MPP cohort received its work placement options, I found the inclusion of the NHS’s Test & Trace Strategy Unit rather curious. While coronavirus was certainly a major issue in November when we received the list of placements, I wondered how important this institution would be come March, when the UK’s vaccination campaign had ramped up to full capacity. However, as I reflected on the disparities present in the global response to coronavirus and worried about scary-looking infection charts, I recognized how valuable such an opportunity could be. Even if the best case scenario were to be realized and I arrived at Test & Trace as it were winding down, the skills I could develop there would be crucial when responding to future pandemics as a policymaker.

I was overjoyed when I found out that the NHS had accepted me for a work placement- although this experience is likely to be a proverbial “trial by fire”, as I familiarize myself with the nuances of the British healthcare system, I understand that the takeaways from this position will be extremely relevant to the health policy development I hope to work on in the United States. My introduction to the staff at the Strategy Unit was fascinating, as they have largely been confined to remote work for the majority of the pandemic, but serving the interests of the public, nonetheless. Although my experience will certainly be “atypical” among most cohorts of MPP students, this unique situation provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the important inner workings of a government in crisis.

An advertisement created by NHS Track & Trace

While we should expect that the current lockdown restrictions will last until at least early March, this does not preclude our cohort’s ability to continue learning. Labs are still working day and night to push the limits of human knowledge, while a tireless effort to vaccinate the United Kingdom is currently underway (with almost 10% of the British adult population having received a shot at time of writing). Although we are in an unenviable position of completing our studies during the most serious pandemic of the 21st century, it is nevertheless an opportunity for incomparable learning.

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