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Raising the alarm on our University’s ‘Safe Working’

Published: 24th September, 2020

Leicester UCU has serious concerns about the University’s response to the UK’s move from Level 3 to Level 4 COVID-19 alert level (announced 21 September), which has major implications for the health and safety of all members of the University community and the communities in which we live. 

[There is an emergency general meeting – open to all members of Leicester UCU – today – 12.30–2pm – to discuss our response to our employer’s plans for us. And other issues of concern. Please check your email for details on how to join.]

At midday yesterday, employees received an email from deputy VC Edmund Burke entitled ‘Safe Working on Campus’. Unfortunately, this email contained a number of misleading statements; we read it as disingenuous and insincere.

·             Prof. Burke states that ‘[t]he Prime Minister was very clear in his announcement [of two days ago – 22 September] that schools, colleges and universities should remain open and operations should be COVID-compliant.’ It’s worth remembering the government adopted such a position in mid-March too. At that time, our employer displayed independent and critical judgement, deciding to close campus operations. A fortnight later, the government U-turned and followed our lead, declaring national lockdown.

·             Prof. Burke refers to the key role of the Lockdown Exit Group and states, ‘[o]ur plans have been shared and tested with the Local Resilience Forum, with Public Health England and with internal experts and the trade unions.’ Despite a trade union’s statutory right to representation on its employers’ health and safety committee, in the covid-era this committee has been side-lined in favour of the Lockdown Exit Group, where all the real decisions have been made. UCU and our sister unions Unison and Unite have been excluded from this key decision-making group. The leadership has, at times, informed us of its plans – but at no point has there been genuine consultation. In short, the University leadership’s claim that it consults with campus unions on such important matters is simply incorrect. It has meant vital Union input has been denied to the direct detriment of staff safety.  

·             The language throughout Prof. Burke’s email – and numerous other communications from the University’s executive board – implies that campus is now ‘safe’ or ‘covid-secure’. Such language is highly misleading. We agree that many steps can be taken to make campus and other environments safer – and that in the case of University of Leicester some of these steps have been taken. Nevertheless significant risks remain, arising both from failures in University of Leicester communications between different committees/groups and different levels of management and from the inherent riskiness of a potentially life-threatening virus. This has not been acknowledged by our leaders. To elide such risks is dereliction of the vice-chancellor’s moral duty and of his legal duty of care towards his employees and the students who study at the university he leads.

·             Prof. Burke asserts that ‘we have timetabled a moderate level of face-to-face teaching that has been planned to meet the needs of each discipline.’ We are frankly astonished by this claim. The amount of face-to-face teaching that has been timetabled does indeed vary greatly across schools – but in many cases bears no relationship to what experts in disciplines adjudge to be pedagogically essential. We suspect some other calculus is at play here.

·             Prof. Burke mentions teaching seven times in his email. He briefly alludes to ‘other colleagues who are not student-facing’ and those who ‘conduct research’. He makes no mention of the majority of the University’s employees who are not teachers or researchers. We would like to remind him and the vice-chancellor of professional services colleagues, who frequently do interact with students who are now being instructed to work in unfamiliar buildings and to utilise ‘touchdown’ spaces, of the porters, cleaners and other ‘ancilliary’ staff, whose labour we all rely on to keep our environment safe.

A key document is the University’s COVID-19 Scenario Operations Plan. The first version of this document (according to the filename, the sixth draft) that was circulated to any Leicester UCU officer – our representatives on the Student Support and Transition Board – was produced in late August; the most recent version, adapted for educational operations only, we received on 10 September, again only via the Student Support and Transitions Board. Of particular concern to us is that no version of this document has ever been circulated to UCU’s Health and Safety representatives.

We understand that this Scenario Operations Plan has had to be revised following the publication on 10 September of new government guidelines on reopening university campuses and buildings on 10 September. We have not been invited to contribute to that process of revision, still ongoing. 

The draft Scenario Operations Plan as of 10 September outlined how changes to levels of face-to-face activities and presence on campus would be aligned to five government-defined COVID-19 ‘alert levels’ (see below). The University’s draft Scenario Operations Plan included a drastic reduction of face-to-face activities on campus from currently planned levels in cases of ‘alert levels’ four and five, including a complete or near-complete shift to online-learning:

  • Level five (red) – a “material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed” – extremely strict social distancing
  • Level four – a high or rising level of transmission – enforced social distancing [which the Chief Medical Officers announced on 21 September]
  • Level three – the virus is in general circulation – social distancing relaxed
  • Level two – the number of cases and transmission are low – minimal social distancing
  • Level one (green) – Covid-19 is no longer present in the UK – no social distancing

The government’s new guidelines to universities on reopening campuses and buildings, published on 10 September, have complicated matters, by introducing the language of ‘tiers’, in terms of what actions universities should take depending on national, local and institutional situations regarding COVID-19. Unfortunately, the four ‘tiers’ of university actions do not directly map onto the five national ‘alert levels’, and the circumstances of when to trigger a shift from one tier of action to another are specified neither by the government guidelines, nor the yet-to-be-finalised University Scenario Operations plan: 

  • Tier 1 (default position): HE providers are expected to provide blended learning, with face-to-face tuition, following the provisions of this guidance, and public health guidance, including, for example, the appropriate use of face coverings
  • Tier 2 (fallback position): HE providers should move to an increased level of online learning where possible. Providers should prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment. We expect that, in the majority of cases, this will be for those courses where it is most beneficial (for example, clinical or practical learning and research)
  • Tier 3 (where stricter measures are needed): HE providers should increase the level of online learning to retain face-to-face provision for priority courses (for example, clinical and medical courses), and in as limited a number of situations as possible. Students should follow government guidance published as part of any additional restrictions applied locally, including where this says that students should remain in their current accommodation and not return their family home or other residential accommodation to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel. In these circumstances, providers should support students to do so by keeping services for students, such as university libraries and catering facilities, open
  • Tier 4 (last resort): We expect the majority of provision to be online, with buildings open for essential workers only. This should include the continuation of essential research

Although he does not say so explicitly, Prof. Burke’s email implies we are currently – and plan to continue – operating at Tier 1. But nationally, the ‘alert level’ has shifted to level four: a high and rapidly rising level of Covid-19 transmission. This was deemed serious enough just two weeks ago – in the draft Scenario Operations Plan – to eliminate all but the most essential activities on campus. Locally, the situation is even worse with outbreaks reported in Oadby and at De Montfort University. It’s astonishing that our employer still believes the ‘default’ position is appropriate given these circumstances!

To conclude, besides our general concerns about the University leadership’s actions, we are alarmed at the draconian approach taken by some heads of school – and the University’s executive complicity in such approaches. In response to members’ fears and anxieties about the return to campus, one head of school has threatened: ‘No one wants to have to go down the route of disciplinary action should any member of staff refuse to perform the work allocated to them, however, this mechanism is there should this be required.’