Masks on campus, free PCR tests and prioritise vaccines for students, UCU demands

The removal of public health and workplace guidance by the UK government was “the biggest threat to students, staff and public safety”, the union claimed 

Universities should require “high-quality face masks” on campus and “ensure free and easy access to PCR tests” for all students and staff in the next academic year, the University and College Union (UCU) has said.  

The two requirements should be part of “robust health and safety risk assessments” conducted before the start of term this autumn. 

General secretary Jo Grady also repeated her plea for students to receive both doses of a Covid vaccination before travelling to campuses for Welcome Week – arguing the government should make them a priority for the rollout this summer. 

The union wrote to the heads of the UK, Scottish and Northern Irish executives today to outline its post-16 Education Recovery Principles. 

It wants “a clear focus on consistent, high-quality education provision…[and] the health and safety of all staff” as well as equal standing for the “physical and mental health of all students”. Universities “should not become centres of community Covid transmission”, it said, and government should make available “adequate funding”. 

Universities should sign-off risk assessments and workload and workplace stress plans with unions and provide them with regular updates on case numbers among staff and students. Universities must ensure free PCR testing is available for all staff and students and offer, and mandate, the wearing of high-quality face masks on campus, it added. 

Our biggest concern remains in England, however, where the government has taken a reckless approach to the removal of restrictions and guidance for education providers
– Jo Grady, UCU

UCU said it reserved “special warning” for the education secretary Gavin Williamson, who, the union said, “green-lit the mass movement of students across the country”. Figures collated for the Department for Education by the Office for Students show 76,546 confirmed positive Covid cases were recorded in the higher education sector between 1 August 2020 to 7 April 2021. Of those, 67,571 were among the student population, and 8,975 were among staff. The removal of public health and workplace guidance on 19 July “means that the actions of the government of Westminster are the biggest threat to students, staff and public safety”, the union claimed. 

The Welsh and Scottish governments escape the opprobrium reserved for the Conservative executive in England. “In Wales, a number of the measures UCU is requesting are already in place…[and] in Scotland, UCU has been part of the government’s Covid Recovery Group and is able to comment on Covid guidance as it is produced,” it said. The letters thank the Scottish and Northern Ireland executives for the cautious approach to lifting Covid public health restrictions. 

Grady, said: “Our biggest concern remains in England, however, where the government has taken a reckless approach to the removal of restrictions and guidance for educations providers. Last year, this complacency led to huge outbreaks, caused chaos for students and burnout for staff, who worked incredibly hard to maintain standards. With the vast majority of universities in England, ministers in Westminster are concocting a recipe for disaster that will threaten public safety.

“This is not a time for the Secretary of State to go on holiday and he must pay attention to scientific advisers, trade unions, staff and students and ensure the education and health of all in the post-16 sector is made a priority. A return to the level of disruption experienced last year would be unforgivable.”


Read more: 75,000 Covid cases associated with HE since August, DfE estimates

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