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September 18th, 2020:

Position statement: COVID-19 Safe return to Campus

We write in our capacity as your branch executive committee to state that we do not feel that Southampton University has yet demonstrated a plan which is clear and comprehensive enough to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission on campus to a safe level. Since students mingle freely with the wider community on buses, in cafes, bars, shops and other public spaces, and since they often travel home at weekends, any increase in infections in University settings will quickly spread among the wider community.

We believe that the safest way to reopen our campuses is to follow the guidance of the Independent SAGE report and recommend that all teaching should be online by default, unless it can be demonstrated that in-person teaching is pedagogically essential. Our view is informed by the Independent SAGE report on universities (20 August), the BMJ editorial ‘Re-opening universities is high risk’ (1 September) and the SAGE paper on SARS-CoV-2 transmission in higher education (4 September) and recent research, discussed in WonkHE. from Bristol University. We also note Warwick UCU’s call to move teaching online (18 August), UCU’s national call on reopening campuses (29 August), the UCU event on reopening universities and colleges (1 September), UCU Fund the Future and internal statements we have seen from other unions. We have also taken account of moves towards all-online teaching provision next term at other universities, including St Andrews, QMUL, UCL and Birkbeck.

Following expert advice, UCU identified 5 tests that must be met to make a return to campus safe for staff and students. Our appraisal of Southampton’s status vis-a-vis these tests follows:

Test 1: Sustained reduction in numbers of Covid-19 cases and infection rates

Not met: Government statistics suggest that cases of Covid-19 in the UK are rising at a substantial rate, particularly amongst those aged 17-20. We appreciate the University has limited power to affect this national picture, but these facts affect the risk and our ability to mitigate it nonetheless. We are extremely concerned that bringing students back prematurely poses a significant risk not only to staff, but to these students, their families (some students commute and some frequently travel home) and the wider community in Southampton.

Test 2: Coherent planning for social distancing

Not met: The university has put in place various control measures to encourage social distancing such as community messaging, signage, one-way systems, additional communal spaces. However, these steps do not adequately reduce risk to a safe level.  There remains no way to make in-person teaching within a shared breathing space safe. We do not yet know what degree of adherence students will demonstrate to these guidelines, nor what the University will do in the event of non-compliance. Furthermore, it is inevitable that students will mix when they are off campus, meaning transmission on campus – particularly via asymptomatic students – is extremely likely. In particular, we cannot see a coherent rationale for the University’s refusal to make mask-wearing compulsory on campus (with the standard medical exemptions)

Test 3: Comprehensive testing and contact tracing

Partially met: We welcome the recent announcement about the use of saliva testing for staff and students and are proud to have colleagues who have worked to produce this testing method. We note, however, that this project does not follow the BMJ recommendations that testing should be mandatory. We understand that the university has limited scope to enforce this, but while testing remains voluntary, we are concerned about the level of uptake. Many uncertainties remain.  We believe that test results will be received via text message, but we do not yet know what steps will be taken once positive tests are returned to trace those who have been in contact with the testee. What plans are in place to support students and staff who need to self-isolate and how quickly these arrangements can be made? Until these questions are answered, it is our view that testing and tracing cannot be said to be ‘comprehensive’.

Test 4: University- wide strategies for safe returns and continuing health and safety

Partially met: In a recent letter written by Health and Safety representatives from UCU, Unison and Unite, which we published on our blog, significant concerns were raised around consultation. We remain concerned that expert advice from unions is not being sought or taken into account sufficiently in the university’s planning and that there are significant gaps in terms of planning for the future. For example, what are the university’s plans in the event of an outbreak? What action will be taken in case of an outbreak in student halls? What will be the trigger for a return to online teaching in all or part of the University? What steps are being taken to prevent a potential on-campus outbreak from becoming an all-Southampton outbreak, amplified through shared public transport systems and facilities such as cafés, bars and shops? Is air-borne contamination being taken into consideration and how is it mitigated?

Test 5: Protection for those most vulnerable to COVID-19

Not met: The UCU’s national position is that “Staff who are themselves more vulnerable to Covid-19, and staff who live with people at heightened risk, must not be required to work on campus.” Throughout the summer, Southampton UCU has raised concerns with senior management about clinically extremely vulnerable staff, vulnerable staff and staff who are living with or caring for vulnerable people. These discussions are ongoing. Senior management continue to reassure us that the health and wellbeing of staff and students is their main priority, but we have received reports  of vulnerable staff and staff living with vulnerable people whose requests to work from home have been declined or are still to be decided. We have advised members in this position to ask the University to reconsider or respond to their requests; unless and until we hear that all such requests have been granted, we cannot state that Test 5 has been met. Further, we reiterate that we cannot support the University’s current policy of requiring vulnerable staff who feel unable to return to campus to take unpaid leave in cases where the University has decided that they cannot work from home. We call on the University to grant staff in this position paid disability leave.  We are also concerned that the University has declined flexible working agreements for parents/carers who have faced considerable challenges finding childcare during the pandemic.

In addition to the five tests not being met in full, we have registered serious concerns regarding the safe return to on-campus working.  These are addressed in the joint trade union health and safety letter which was sent to the Chief Operating Officer on Monday 7th September and is published on the SUCU blog. We are happy to work with senior management to seek solutions to these issues, but time is now extremely tight, and unless sufficient progress is made in reducing the risks on campus, we do not feel able to recommend these plans to our members.

Southampton UCU Executive Committee