UCU backs strikes if university staff unhappy with Covid protections

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady has encouraged union members to report concerns about workplace safety to the union

The University and College Union (UCU) will support industrial action if institutions are not doing enough to keep staff safe from coronavirus, its general secretary threatened today as the union launched a new reporting system for whistleblowers.

The union is encouraging members to report concerns about workplace safety via its online system and warns universities “cannot hide behind the failings” of government ministers.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said she wanted to know how universities have risk-assessed the next term, including “better information about testing systems in place”.

Dr Grady has called for universities to cancel face-to-face teaching in favour of online-only lecturers and seminars.

“We accept that guidance from the government has not been up to scratch, but colleges and universities cannot hide behind the failings of ministers. They must step up and do the right things to protect their communities,” Dr Grady said.

“We will be monitoring what comes in from members and will name and shame institutions that are not up to scratch. Our main objective is to help avert a preventable public health crisis. But if our members are concerned with how their college or university is behaving, we will back them if they vote to move into dispute, which could result in ballots for industrial action.”

To support its “name and shame” threat, the union is calling on university informants to notify it of the plans a provider has in the case of a campus outbreak.

University Business has approached UCU for details of how many universities have yet to share risk assessments with local union representatives and is awaiting a response.

More than a million students will return to campuses in the next few weeks, at a time when the efficacy of the government’s test and trace programme is under scrutiny. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned on 4 September: “It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making.”

Current government advice to universities on coronavirus

The government’s advice for universities makes clear that HE providers have legal responsibilities under the under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Equality Act 2010 and must comply with these obligations.

Universities have been told by the government “to ensure that students and staff are aware of national guidance on testing, contact tracing and self-isolation – and promote the importance of following that guidance to help stop the spread of the virus”, and campus libraries, cafeterias and canteens must maintain fortnightly records of students and staff using their premises.

The Department for Education (DfE) has advised universities to share risk assessments with unions, which explains how social distancing – or appropriate mitigations – will be implemented on campus. The DfE has also encouraged universities to group staff in bubbles in order to minimise outbreaks, install extra sanitisation facilities, intensify cleaning schedules and require that staff and students wear face coverings indoors.

Universities are responsible for supporting students to self-isolate if required to by regional authorities, which will include providing food and supplies to students’ residences. The self-isolation period for those with Covid-19 is 10 days – or longer if they still have a high temperature – and for non-household contacts for a period ending after 14 days.

In the event of a local outbreak, universities have been told to keep students at their term-time address. The government’s new ‘rule of six’ means students will be required to limit their social interactions and parties during the next term. DevonLive yesterday reported that students at the University of Exeter were ignoring the new restrictions and organising parties.

The government states that over 200 local testing sites, 236 mobile testing units and 75 regional testing sites will be operational by October, which can process students and staff that present symptoms. Asymptomatic testing is only available in specific circumstances, for example a local outbreak.

School leaders raised fresh concerns today about the government’s handling of testing.

The BBC has reported that some schools in England had already closed their doors, while others have told whole year groups or classes to self-isolate for two weeks following confirmed cases. Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis schools’ trust, told the BBC that eight out of his trust 52 schools had sent home pupils – sometimes whole year groups – home because of Covid-19 infections.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “The government assured us that this would be ready, but at the first sign of stress it seems to be falling over.”

Read more: Updated guidance from government ahead of universities reopening

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