ATOM, COVID-19 and Public Health

Latest update: March 19th @ 7pm




On the morning of March 13th, after careful and considered discussions with organisers, volunteers and key partners, and in light of the ongoing uncertainty of the coronavirus situation, we reluctantly took the decision to cancel the remainder of the ATOM Festival Programme for 2020. Our full statement - updated March 19th to include details on refunding ticket holders, and plans to reschedule the Festival - can be read and downloaded here.


Whilst this page may change to clarify some of the details, the key messages are:


  1. We have cancelled all public events taking place as part of ATOM 2020.
  2. There were many factors in our decision (explained below) but ultimately, with at least one speaker directly affected by coronavirus, and some organisations withdrawing (sometimes because they are on the front line of the public health emergency), we felt a clear and unambiguous decision to cancel was the right thing to do for the safety and wellbeing of the large number of people who make ATOM happen.
  3. We have been led by the science at all stages. Scientific advice states that the UK has now entered the 'delay' phase of what is now a global pandemic, and that means we have a responsibility to show leadership in slowing the spread where events are not essential.
  4. ATOM is run by a small largely volunteer-run team. Our ability to liaise with, track, inform and make decisions on an event-by-event basis is no longer viable. Again, we do not want to add to confusion and anxiety with constantly changing advice.


There is obviously a lot of concern given the unfolding situation around the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus). This page provides a hub for Coronavirus advice, and the status of the ATOM Festival. 


General health advice


The advice for anyone in any setting is to follow these main guidelines.

  • The most common symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) are recent onset of a new continuous cough and/or high temperature. If you have these symptoms, however mild, stay at home and do not leave your house for 7 days from when your symptoms started. You do not need to call NHS 111 to go into self-isolation. If your symptoms worsen during home isolation or are no better after 7 days, contact NHS 111 online. If you have no internet access, you should call NHS 111. For a medical emergency dial 999.
  • Wash your hands more often than usual, for 20 seconds using soap and hot water, particularly after coughing, sneezing and blowing your nose, or after being in public areas where other people are doing so. Use hand sanitiser if that’s all you have access to.
  • To reduce the spread of germs when you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, or your sleeve (not your hands) if you don’t have a tissue, and throw the tissue away immediately. Then wash your hands or use a hand sanitising gel.
  • Clean and disinfect regularly touched objects and surfaces using your regular cleaning products to reduce the risk of passing the infection on to other people.
  • At the current time and based on our understanding of what is known of COVID-19 and other similar respiratory viruses, it is likely that older people and those with chronic medical conditions may be vulnerable to severe disease. As more information emerges, recommendations may change.

For the latest guidance for health professionals, social distancing, symptoms and what to do if someone in your household is affected, refer to the official UK Government response page.


The science behind Covid-19


However, ATOM is a science festival. And amongst the many scientists, speakers, volunteers and outreach teams that take part every year, we have teams who are on the frontline of the UK's response to the COVID-19 Outbreak.


Anyone who attended last year may have met teams from Public Health England (the UK government agency who provide the NHS, business and the public with expertise and support on health) and Sheffield's The Florey Institute (one of the UK's primary research institutions studying how infectious diseases spread and how they can be stopped).


Both organisations will be back this year. Read below to find out what they do.


For now, if you want to inform yourself on the whats and whys of Coronavirus and COVID-19, we recommend the following links:


  • If the virus spreads, governments will try to slow the spread of the disease, and hope that this stretches the transmission timeframes into warmer weather. Why? Because there is good evidence that flu is seasonal, that warm weather slows the transmission of infectious diseases like viruses and flu. This BBC Future article is a good primer as to why.
  • ATOM19 Headliner Dr Hannah Fry produced this documentary on pandemics and the mathematics behind them. It's a great watch - and should allow you to be better informed about what a pandemic is and how it spreads (and is stopped)
  • This Twitter thread on why washing your hands with soap is so effective against viruses is also very instructive.


More about ATOM and Science Capital


Ironically, anyone who came to ATOM last year and learned about ways to detect and prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and build resilience, may have had a year's head start in dealing with COVID-19.


Last year it was fun and theoretical. This year, it's anything but.


The Science Market takes place on Abingdon's Market Square. Science and technology organisations set up what looks like a regular market, but instead of local produce, we have...local science (although in recent years we have had organisations travelling from further afield).



We believe it's the biggest open-access, free event of its kind in the UK.



The Florey Institute outreach team came down from Sheffield, and invited visitors to place their fingers in a petri dish, and they were given a web address and a number (as well as being taught the importance of washing your hands!)


Visitors were then able to log onto the website, and view the growth of microbes on their hands via the special web ID.



It was one of the most imaginative and interactive science activities of the Festival last year.


At the same time, they advised people on the importance of hygiene, handwashing and other activities that can prevent the spread of diseases. The Florey Institute are also on the front line of antibiotic and drug resistance, and radical ways to protect against infectious diseases - something they describe as one of the world’s biggest biomedical challenges (I think we can all agree with that).


The Florey Institute is back alongside another 20 science outreach teams from companies, research departments and science groups on Saturday March 14th. Find out much more here.


Public Health England meanwhile attended the Family Science Fair, three floors of lab-based, hands-on science - and again, free to attend. 



Public Health England responds to around 10,000 disease outbreaks and health emergencies every year, both at home and abroad.

They range from e-coli, legionnaires and TB through to emerging threats such as the outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19.



The outreach team had a variety of highly engaging activities to teach the basis of disease outbreaks, how to prevent them and other public health areas such as radiation protection and food safety. 



This is E.Coli, a type of bacteria common in human and animal intestines, and forms part of the normal gut flora (the bacteria that exist in the bowel). There are a number of different types of E.Coli and while the majority are harmless some can cause serious food poisoning and serious infection. You can find out more about the health risks here


Public Health England will be back at the Family Science Fair, which this year takes place on Sunday, March 22nd between 11am - 3pm. You can learn much more here.


How science (and scientists) protect us


ATOM only takes place because of the incredible support we receive from supporters, scientists, volunteers and individuals in our local science community. We see ATOM as helping to build science capital in our community, ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to engage with science and understand its importance in helping us survive and thrive in the modern world.


The COVID-19 outbreak reminds us that we have incredible networks and global platforms of science experts, with expertise and systems built up over decades, and whose job it is to prepare for emergencies and help keep us safe in a globalised world.


Scientists from organisations like Public Health England and The Florey Institute, and in research labs and medical companies work consistently hard - often in anonymity - to anticipate, prepare for and then respond to medical emergencies.


This is science in real life, and it's what we celebrate at ATOM every year.


We hope you can make it to this year's festival, but if circumstances change, make sure you sign up to our newsletter to find out the latest news.

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