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Bolting Horses & Stable Doors: Responding to COVID-19 Cases on Campus

Published: 12th October, 2020

University of Leicester staff were notified of the University’s COVID-19 Strategic Response Framework for the first time on Friday 9 October, 5.45pm, in an email from the Chief Operating Officer, two weeks after students returned to campus. In this email, the COO reported that the

“Strategic Framework has been agreed by the local Public Health team, Lockdown Exit Group and Executive Board. It has also been considered by the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee.”

All-staff email from Chief Operating Officer, Friday 9 October 2020.

It is important to note that the COO states the Strategic Framework was only “considered” – not agreed – by the University’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee, of which he is Chair. Moreover, unlike previous communications from the University’s executive board, the COO makes no claim to working with, or in consultation with, the trade unions in developing this plan.

This is because the University’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee, including Leicester UCU’s Health and Safety Officers as members of that committee, were provided with a copy of this Strategic Framework document for the first time on Tuesday 6 October, 5.15pm. They were invited to endorse it on short notice, ahead of the University’s plan to publish it to all staff on Friday 9 October. Clearly, that endorsement was not forthcoming.

As we have highlighted previously, previously, and previously, this is the latest evidence that, despite repeated reassurances from executive board members, the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee has not been at the forefront of decision-making in managing our return to campus working. What follows is the text of an email sent by Leicester UCU Health and Safety Officers to the Chief Operating Officer on Thursday 8 October, explaining the reasons why they could not endorse the Strategic Framework. [The email has been edited slightly to include the latest figures for on-campus COVID-19 cases, published by the University on Friday 9 October]. As of Monday 12 October, 10.00am, Leicester UCU has not received a response.

As Health and Safety Officers of Leicester UCU we are not able to endorse the Strategic COVID Response Framework. We share the stated aim of prioritising the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff and students and, in that spirit, we provide below detailed commentary on the document to explain why we cannot endorse it. The contents have been approved by Leicester UCU senior branch officers.

1. Timeliness of Sharing Documents for Review 

Presenting a near-finalised plan, that has clearly been weeks in development, at the eleventh hour and asking for endorsement, with the possibility of making minor changes only, does not meet the University’s agreed responsibility for consultation. Providing documents in this manner this does not allow for careful review, or give the document authors the time and opportunity to meaningfully incorporate feedback in order to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of all staff and students.  

2. Modelling of CV-19 data

At the onset of the pandemic, we asked explicitly how cumulative data was being used to model future risk.  This question as to how CV-19 transmission data would be most effectively used to mitigate risk was also put to the Executive Board members dealing with the University of Leicester Screening Project. 

We were informed that modelling of risk was ‘not necessary’ in the first case and in the second case we have had no satisfactory answer.

In highlighting the essential need for modelling, we cite the key aims of the LEG group from the CV Emergency Guide 23 09 20

‘…..Our first priority will be the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff and students….’

This would mean that all data would be optimally used and subject to analysis by those skilled in the relevant methods.  The University and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust have many exceptional staff members with these skill sets. This is what SAGE and other bodies do with emerging population data and explicitly use it to predict future risk.

If appropriate modelling techniques are not being used or at the very least referred to then the University is failing in its duty of care. Regarding the CV-19 Response Framework document we are told that ‘the local Public Health Team’ were consulted.  Can you provide details of the members of ‘the local Public Health Team’ please and what additional details/data they were provided with that we have not been?

Modelling demographic risk is at the heart of Public Health work, so presumably they must have employed some kind of modelling or at the very least, employed a set of clearly defined set of assumptions about transmission rates when advising UOL. What were they?

The above shapes our commentary on the following points.

3. Modelling -1 Calculation of Risk from Numbers

Throughout the “Situation Description: Likely features column there is vague use of the terms ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ and ‘cluster’.  Epidemiologically these terms must be determined by reference to a defined population or sub population. As currently used, they are dimensionless and meaningless.

This is needed, alongside specified criteria about what at UoL constitutes ‘linked’ and a ‘cluster’.  What do you (COVID Case Response Group, COVID Oversight Group, Executive Board) mean by ‘linked’ and ‘cluster’?  UoL has direct access to these figures so why is it not using them and using them transparently?

From the above we need to be told the figures of how many cases per: total UoL population; UoL staff population; UoL student population, and what constitutes clustering and linkage?

We would also want to have estimates of risk of transmission both within and between groups. 

In addition how many students/staff are currently having to self-isolate due to association with CV-19 positive cases? Will this information be published along with the plans to publish positive case numbers?

4. Modelling – 2 Calculation of Rate from Numbers/Time

There is a complete absence of any description of calculation of future risk by modelling rates of transmission and rates of increase in cases, both at the University level and marrying this with rates at the regional/Leicester level.  This point was made explicitly in previous requests for information around modelling. It is an essential part of the model that surely the Public health team must be aware of.

It is absolutely essential for realising the aim:

‘…..Our first priority will be the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff and students….’

These are critical factors in determining risk of spread and risk of infection. The country already knows that students have acted as a primary vector in recent transmission driving up UK wide rates to over 12,000 new cases a day.

Even with the figures we have had of student confirmed cases we can see going from 11 to 82 within a week represents a rapid rate of accretion.

5. Modelling 3  – Bolting Horses and Stable Doors

Because of the above points 3 and 4 UoL are currently proposing a set of (at best) ill-defined criteria to make judgements regarding movement between tiers.

The failure to proactively employ well established modelling approaches in favour of a reactive model, is the equivalent of closing the stable door of mitigation well after the CV-19 horse has bolted. As it stands the plan is to wait until levels of reported cases on campus reach a non-defined ‘medium’ or ‘high level’ before taking action to reduce incidence of infection by changing levels of activity on campus.

Surely the Executive Board realise that reported CV-19 +ve figures (arising from an imperfect sampling procedure) will not represent the actual CV-19 +ve figures, figures which must be higher. 

In lay terms this means that before a decision is taken to move to a higher tier of response, staff and students will already be sick, potentially seriously, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students isolating, placing further strain on already strained University resources. The goal should be to prevent the situation from getting to this stage, particularly as we know how quickly numbers of confirmed cases can mushroom. 

CV-19 in the UK HE sector: The example of Manchester 

As an example, from the University of Manchester, which has been publishing numbers of daily confirmed cases for the last fortnight.

On 24.09.20, there was a cumulative total of 12 confirmed cases at Manchester University (11 students, 1 staff), similar to the 11 confirmed cases at the University of Leicester reported in Geoff Green’s email to staff on Friday 2 October.

On 27.09.20, there was a cumulative total of 35 confirmed cases at Manchester University (32 students, 3 staff), similar to the University of Leicester’s numbers reported by Martyn on Tuesday 6 October.

On 28.09.20, cumulative confirmed cases at Manchester had risen to 88 (6 staff, 82 students), similar to the 82 confirmed cases at Leicester for the cumulative data reported up to Thursday 8 October (note the similarity in number of days between similar increases in cases in Manchester and Leicester).

At this point, 28.09.20, Manchester took no action to reduce F2F events on campus. Less than a week later, on 4.10.20, cumulative confirmed cases stood at 1,058 (20 staff, 1,038 students).

They announced a shift to “Tier 3” – online only, with exemptions for clinical teaching etc – on 6.10.20. An additional 385 confirmed cases (375 students, 10 staff) were reported by 7.10.20. They should have acted – as University of Leicester should now, and as Leicester UCU has called on you to do  – to prevent such high numbers of students and staff becoming infected. 

6. Decision Making

In terms of decision-making, we understand COG is the new name for LEG, and therefore has the same membership as the latter. We note, as we have done previously, that for some reason, the Director of Health and Safety is not on this body.  Nor are any trade union Health & Safety representatives.

The COVID-19 governance document has not been updated to explain the membership of the COVID Case Response Group, or how it works with/feeds into or from any of the other bodies mentioned in this document (as of 9.30am, 7.10.20).

This needs to be clarified urgently. As a Union acting in the interests of all members of the University of Leicester Community, we again reiterate the importance of putting Health and Safety first to realise the laudable aim of

‘…..Our first priority will be the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff and students….’

This requires involvement of relevant Health and Safety members of the UoL and the Trade Unions.  We also need the processes around decision making criteria to be made open and transparent to the University Community. Only then can we all work together to use all our talents in mitigating the serious ongoing risk to all from CV-19.

Leicester UCU Health and Safety Officers, on behalf of the Leicester UCU Committee.