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Health & Safety

Correspondence with senior management following the EJJNC

Following the email sent to the COO on the 30th September from the 3 campus unions, we received the following response on the 5th October and have since responded with our comments (highlighted in blue):

 

Dear Lucy, Adam, Naomi, Alastair and Gwen

Thank you for your email.   I have been very busy during this first week of the new teaching year and regret that my reply is delayed.

Following discussion with you at one of our weekly meetings and in the correspondence to arrange the EJJNC on Tuesday, and its agenda, I believe our mutual intention had been to address the many topics you had previously raised in emails and letters at that meeting.  That was the reason I had deferred replying to those emails.  We have established regular dialogue at our weekly meetings and we all agreed that the additional time at an extra JJNC would be the best place to raise and discuss issues and concerns.

We also expected that the meeting would be organised in that way and hoped that you would specifically address the concerns that we raised. We believe that we had been quite clear what these issues were in our emails so did not feel it necessary to alter the agenda to itemise these. We felt that too much time was devoted to listening to the University’s position, which by now we know well, and going over old ground, and not enough time was given to listening to UCU’s specific concerns over H&S and in-person teaching. 

Clearly from your email you think that did not comprehensively happen in practice.  I propose therefore to prepare a comprehensive reply to the points you have raised and ensure you have that before our next weekly meeting on Wednesday 7th October.  That would be much appreciated.

Our weekly meetings have been an unprecedented opportunity for issues relating to the establishment of a COVID-secure campus to be raised, to be recorded and for answers to be given.  I believe that we all participated in those meetings in the spirit of mutual determination to provide a secure environment in which to work, to research and to educate our students.  I am very grateful for the contributions union representatives made to development of the protocols and guidance for re-opening the campus after lockdown.  Those have been the foundation of a successful re-opening of University activity on campus and have been rigorously followed in every building opened.

We have always said that we appreciate the opportunity for discussion in the weekly meetings and thank you for the time you have taken to attend. However, we do not believe that the unions have been comprehensively included in the ‘development of the protocols and guidance for re-opening the campus after lockdown’. For example, UCU did not contribute to decision-making around the return to in-person teaching. We were allowed access to the operational ‘curriculum planning’ group but not the decision-making Active Campus group.

There are a number of important communications we did not sight of in advance of their publication, including the guidance for in-person teaching sent out by Alex Neill and the “good practice for socially distanced teaching” guidance. The latter contradicted some of the guidance in earlier correspondence (part of which has subsequently had to be corrected by Cathy Day). We also dispute that protocols have been ‘rigorously followed in every building opened’; we hear from our members and our sister unions that contractors are not socially distancing, have not received information about ‘Covid-secure’ protocols and that one-way systems are not being used. Rooms booked for teaching have been found locked at the start of class, preventing students and staff from entering and thus encouraging people to congregate in large groups. Masks are not always being worn and cleaning equipment, such as bins, are not always provided. Our members have found sanitizer stations turned off. The 25-student upper limit on classes has already been waived for some booked teaching, creating the dangerous possibility of ‘superspreader’ events and undermining the risk mitigation strategies we rely on.

You will be aware of the Government’s clearly expressed expectation that universities will be open, will be teaching their students in a blended way (including in-person) and that they will take care of students to ensure their well-being.  This is consistent with the University’s commitment to provide the best education we can in current circumstances.  This approach has been evidently supported by students who want to come to our University to learn, to experience new opportunities and to develop their potential.

The government line is constantly changing and their own advisors on SAGE warned that students coming back to halls would aid transmission. The government line on face-to-face teaching has always allowed for interpretation by individual institutions. In his recent address to parliament, Gavin Williamson said that face-to-face teaching should happen where it is difficult to replicate learning online, for example, for some clinical and practical subjects. UCU agrees with this. It has never been our line no in-person teaching should occur at all, nor that online is always preferable; it is simply that it is safest for all if in-person teaching is restricted to what is strictly necessary. We do not agree that face-to-face teaching under the current constraints is always the best possible education, because it is less flexible than the online alternatives (e.g. in terms of group work). Our staff are being pressured to provide in-person teaching even when they believe that the online equivalent would be pedagogically equivalent or better. 

Students can still enjoy new experiences and develop their potential but we must be realistic and honest about what can be provided during the current crisis. We note with concern that students are presented as wanting the on-campus experience. This is based on the model of ‘the student’ as young, able-bodied and without caring responsibilities. The voices and viewpoints of disabled, clinically vulnerable and mature students are missing from this picture of ‘business as usual’, though our members are hearing the voices of these students. 

Moreover, the government’s expectations were based on a national-level approach to the pandemic that would include both a functioning test and trace system and a case rate either falling or at least controlled. We draw your attention to the test and trace fiasco that played out over the weekend; across the country the number of positive cases has been dramatically understated, and over 15,000 contacts have not been traced due to an error in using Excel for data storage. The risk of many thousands more infections as a result of this mishandling is significant and we suggest that merely meeting the earlier expectations set by the Government is inadequate to ensure good public health outcomes.

Those plans that you have contributed to are robust and stand comparison with other universities across the UK.  In several ways we exceed the mitigations of other universities, not least with our unique surveillance testing for all students and for staff working regularly on campus.  The testing programme will identify even asymptomatic infected people before they have opportunities to transmit infection widely.  That will give confidence that those on campus are most likely to be staff and students who have recently tested negative for coronavirus.

The last sentence does not quite follow—and there is some uncomfortable vagueness in the term ‘recently’. We were told in recent communication that the coverage of students was far from universal, and take-up by staff falls behind that of students. We are being asked to bring our saliva samples to campus on the first day we are scheduled to teach, which means there is a serious danger that we bring infection to campus, pass it on, and then receive our positive result too late. If arrangements are similar for students, this will mean any given student could spread the virus widely before they are located and asked to self-isolate. We have also heard reports that staff due to teach in-person have received kits but not the first “take a test” instruction. Students have also informed staff that they have received nothing in the last week so there are already numerous students mixing with no testing in progress.

As of Friday morning there were less than a dozen staff and students with known positive COVID-19 tests.  That does not warrant a move from our tier-1 to a more restricted amount of in-person teaching.  The teaching rooms are designed to reduce the risk of transmission – as you know there are Perspex screens for teachers to stand behind, strict spacing, anti-viral wipes, cleaning between each teaching session, a requirement to wear face-covering indoors, one-way systems and timetabling to avoid cross-overs between classes.

We believe that this does not reflect the realities of the national infection rate, nor the lessons we could learn from other universities. While Southampton’s planning compares well to some other universities, it is not leading the way. Solent and Bournemouth took the courageous decision to move the vast majority of their teaching online in order to protect staff and students. Some students are still in student accommodation but they were able to make the choice to stay at home if they wanted to and were able. The requirement to wear face-covering indoors is undermined by the fact that staff and students are allowed to take them off when distanced of more than 2m. This does not take into account airborne transmission. A recent report shows that the CDC in the USA is now taking the risks of aerosol transmission far more seriously: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/10/05/920446534/cdc-acknowledges-coronavirus-can-spread-via-airborne-transmission?t=1601988013329 Face-covering indoors should be compulsory at all times. This lack of clarity has already resulted in several cases where staff or students took their masks off during in-person classes.

In order for us to assess the validity of the University’s claims regarding COVID-positive numbers we need substantially more information. We need to know: how many students have been recently tested (out of the eligible population); how many have tested negative and how many positive, and the same for all staff working on campus. Again, Southampton management is not here following best practice in the sector, and could and should provide a publicly-accessible COVID cases dashboard of the kind developed by Sheffield University and as recommended by UCU nationally.

Moreover, the University’s approach assumes that moving from ‘tier 1’ to a higher tier should a wholly reactive measure based on the prevalence of cases within the University, rather than a pro-active measure taking into account the prevalence of cases within the wider community, and thus the capacity of that community’s health infrastructure to cope with a surge in cases and hospital admissions. We believe that the move to a higher tier should be a pro-active. In an environment where cases are rising exponentially, the University’s responsibility to its students, staff, and community is to do what it can to suppress and prevent further infections, not simply to react to outbreaks after they happen. This is particularly important because, even with the University’s testing regime, by the time an outbreak is identified affected students and staff will have potentially already infected many other members of the community via buses, cafes, bars etc.

The reduced teaching timetable and limited, booked, spaces in the libraries reduce the number of students coming to campus and only those staff who need to work on campus are expected to be there.  Staff who can work at home and do not need to be on campus (eg for teaching) will continue to work from home.  I have confidence in the ability of our students to understand our guidance and requirements and to behave in ways that keep themselves and others safe.  Partly I have that confidence because I have seen them sticking with smaller groups and wearing face-coverings when needed.

This does not reflect what we are hearing from our colleagues working in halls, or indeed from the local community with respect to students living in private housing. A substantial number of students are not adhering to the ‘rule of 6’. We do not blame the students for this—they are being told they need to be here to study, and they are being asked to restrict their movements more than the rest of the adult population in order to stay safe. Students still need to work, to socialise and move around the country to visit their families—not least for the sake of their mental health. Those students who have chosen to come to halls are likely to be highly mobile with few obvious health concerns. The lifestyles they lead and their living conditions are not conducive to social distancing. With regards to staff, we are still extremely alarmed that insufficient attention has been paid to the commuting needs of staff in back-to-campus planning. It is also not true that staff are being allowed to continue to work from home – they are being told they must attend PAT meetings F2F, inductions F2F and other pedagogically non-essential interactions with students in-person. If they have commuted to work, they will not be able to go home between sessions and there are limited spaces for them to work on campus.

The University has developed its outbreak response plan in discussion and partnership with the City and County public health officials.  We have clear plans for what to do when someone reports they are infected and comprehensive support arrangements are in place for students who are in self-isolation – with their health and mental well-being our priority.

The latest guidance to students states that flatmates and friends should help students who are isolating with food. This is too great a burden to put on students who hardly know each other, notwithstanding the fact that flatmates may also be isolating. There are limited delivery slots for supermarkets and if there is an outbreak, pressure will be put on these services. We want reassurances that students will be looked after by the University (not their friends) in the event of an outbreak.

Moreover, it remains clear from early outbreaks, as well as from recent ones at universities and even from the Rose Garden of the White House last week that the really problematic period for infection spread is before people realise they have been infected.

You have raised concerns about staff who are especially vulnerable to the risks consequent on COVID-19 infection.  The risk assessment for individuals used by the University enables anyone with concerns to identify those risks in discussion with their line manager, so that their line manager can make appropriate arrangements.  Those arrangements can include working from home and in my conversations with line managers since Tuesday I have heard examples in which that has been readily agreed.  Following the EJJNC on Tuesday I followed up on the commitment I made at the meeting to ensure that line managers would be familiar with this risk assessment process and how to respond to their staff members’ concerns.  This work is in hand and I can report progress when we next meet.

While some risk assessments for staff permitting them to work at home have been readily agreed, others have not, and indeed we are aware of cases where working from home arrangements have still not been agreed for vulnerable staff, or staff living with vulnerable individuals, even though their on-campus work is scheduled to begin this week. We believe that in the current environment, which is fraught with risk simply because of the national context, all staff who can work from home and wish to work from home should be able to do so, in line with the government guidance for the rest of the population. We also note that the RAs do not directly consider the impact of an activity on anyone but the staff member who is the subject of the RA. There is no space to assess the impact on family members or cohabitants of that staff member; their vulnerability to Covid-19 does not therefore get taken into account even as such a staff member is required to return to the workplace. This will put considerable strain on their mental wellbeing, due to the very real chance of spreading Covid-19 infection to such family members. Asking staff to put their family at risk to undertake activities that could be more easily be undertaken remotely is simply unacceptable and shows a deep unseriousness about staff well-being. We would be grateful if you could provide us with a copy of the Equality Impact Assessment pertaining to the University’s decision reopen campus and recommence in-person teaching in the middle of this pandemic.

I look forward to meeting you at our next weekly discussion.

Best wishes

Richard

 

 

EGM motion – Return to campus and in-person teaching plans 

The motion below was passed by a quorate Extraordinary General Meeting of UCU members held on 15 September 2020

Motion 3Return to campus and in-person teaching plans 

Southampton UCU do not believe that the University’s return to campus plans in their current form are clear and comprehensive enough to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission on campus to a safe level.  

This branch notes: 

  • The University’s position that all students must receive some in-person teaching. 
  • The recent British Medical Journal and Independent SAGE reports highlighting the high risk of in-person teaching. 
  • The University is not yet committed to making use of all the control methods set out in the Government guidance of 10 September [link], such as the segmentation of students and ventilation requirements. 
  • UCU’s 5 tests for safe returns to on-campus working in HE.  
  • That cases of Covid-19 in the UK are rising at a substantial rate, particularly amongst those aged 17-20. 
  • That students will mix when they are off campus. They have jobs, use public transport and may live in HMOs. Their circumstances increase the likelihood of transmission on campus, particularly if they are asymptomatic. 
  • The joint letter from Unite, Unison and UCU Health and Safety reps (7/09/20) noting that we have been excluded from the high-level decision-making forums such as Active Campus and stating that they have not been adequately consulted on Health and Safety issues, particularly in relation to in-person teaching. 

This branch believes: 

  • Bringing students back prematurely poses a significant risk to staff, students, their families and the wider Southampton community. 
  • That control measures put in place by the university are insufficient, particularly as we do not know what degree of adherence students will demonstrate, nor what the University will do in the event of non-compliance.  
  •  That there is no way to make in-person teaching completely safe within a shared breathing space. Moreover, for many courses there is limited direct educational value in the style of teaching necessitated by maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.  
  • That clinically extremely vulnerable staff and those caring for vulnerable people have not received adequate advice, reassurance and protections, despite the University stating that the health and safety of staff and students is its main priority. Furthermore, poor communication around the return to campus plans have added to workloads and increased stress and mental health problems.   

This branch calls on management to: 

  • Ensure that all staff members with health vulnerabilities (or household members with vulnerabilities) are permitted to teach and work remotely for the duration of the pandemic without detriment. 
  • Agree that no staff member should be compelled to return to campus until the 5 tests set by UCU’s expert panel are met 
  • As advised by the Independent SAGE report, online teaching must be the default until these 5 tests are met. 
  • Make the wearing of masks on campus mandatory in all enclosed spaces (with standard health exemptions). 
  • Take all steps available within the law to ensure a comprehensive  testing regime that covers all staff and students (with standard health exemptions) following the BMJ’s recommendations of 01/09/2020 https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3365 
  • Publish its procedure and timeline for collecting and reporting confirmed cases amongst staff and students, including contact tracing for positive cases 
  • Publish its contingency plans listing what trigger points for University and community transmission the University has identified, and what responses these will activate on campus. Restate and uphold its commitment to fully consult trade union Health and Safety representatives on all its Covid-19 contingency planning. 

This branch resolves to:  

  • Publish resources to inform members’ decision-making regarding the safety of return to campus.  
  • Support members if they use their rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. 
  • Launch a campaign, in collaboration with other TUs and local authorities to ensure the health and safety of our community is prioritised over financial interests. 
  • Refuse to endorse the return to campus plans until these issues are addressed.  

Proposer: Lucy Watson 

Seconder: Claire Le Foll 

Motion passed

 

 

 

COVID-19: Health and Safety correspondence with University management

This week Health and Safety officers from UCU, Unison and Unite wrote to the COO informing him of their concerns around the return to campus plans. Your exec have also written to the COO asking senior management to address these and other unresolved issues urgently. You can read the correspondence below. We will update members on developments when we can.