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UCU concerns about returning to campus – email to senior management

UCU has written today (5 January) to the Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Operations) asking them to reconsider the University’s position on returning to campus in January 2022.  We will keep you posted of any response received.

 

From: ucu
Sent: 05 January 2022 13:01
To: Vice-Chancellor <vice-chancellor@soton.ac.uk>; Vice President (Operations) <Vice-PresidentOperations@soton.ac.uk>
Cc: Lucy Watson <Lucy.Watson@soton.ac.uk>; Cathy Day <Cathy.Day@soton.ac.uk>; Alex Neill <A.D.Neill@soton.ac.uk>
Subject: UCU concerns about returning to campus

Dear Mark and Wendy
We are writing to urge you to reconsider your position on COVID restrictions and face to face teaching activity for the final week of this semester and the exam period.

Omicron is now known to be much more infectious than other COVID variants. UCU believes that, alongside getting vaccinated, the most important thing we can do as a community is to try to “spread out” the coming January peak load on the NHS. The impact on public health caused by staff absence, lack of care home placements, the large backlog of scheduled interventions, and new COVID infections will be enormous. We can help reduce this impact by minimising the rate of infection among our staff and students for the next month or so.

We believe that the University should:

  • Cancel large in-person teaching sessions and assessments and consider online alternatives. We know that ECS, along with one or two other STEM departments, are insisting on in-person examinations this semester. We believe that because Omicron is so contagious, staff and students are being put at unnecessary risk of contracting covid during one of these sessions. In addition, those students who test positive before having to attend a face-to-face exam must isolate and the alternatives for them are limited. The University is encouraging students to either not test and risk bringing the variant to campus or test positive and miss an important assessment.
  • Avoid the use of teaching spaces which have not been demonstrated to have an adequate flow of outside or virus-filtered air. The UK government has finally accepted that steps need to be taken to prevent the circulation of COVID within school classrooms and have announced the supply of 7000 “air purifiers”. In contrast, many of our teaching spaces at the University still have not been effectively surveyed even for air flow, regardless of the cleanliness of the incoming air. In most cases, we understand that the recirculated air is not filtered to remove COVID and may well be spreading infection around the whole area (possibly more than a single room) over which it is being recirculated. We also believe that it is not technically possible to operate most of these systems using external air only.
  • Recommend the use of non-valved FFP2 or FFP3 masks. Regardless of the official advice, UCU’s Health and Safety representatives believe that the new omicron variant requires us to enhance the standard of mask that we wear in the workplace. FFP3 respirators without valves are now readily available commercially and the University should provide them for staff who need to be on campus.
  • Finally, the University must provide appropriate remote support for staff and students who are unable to attend in-person because they care for vulnerable people or are vulnerable themselves. This includes carrying out individual risk assessments for staff who are in this position and allowing them to work from home if necessary. Staff should not be expected to teach both in-person and online as this leads to an unacceptable workload increase which staff are barely managing as it is.

Our views are informed by this opinion piece from the British Medical Journal which has a large group of signatories https://www.bmj.com/content/376/bmj.o1.full.pdf. They specifically promote high-quality masks, ventilation, and filtration. We are also taking advice from national UCU and scientists who believe that the Department of Education’s response to Omicron in our settings is woefully inadequate. Universities can choose to do more to protect staff and students independently, and we believe that they should.

As teaching is due to start on Monday, we request your urgent response.

With regards

Southampton UCU Executive Committee

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