Northumbria UCU Newsletter – September 2021: Covid Update

In his introduction to the university’s Health and Safety policy, your Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Wathey, states: “Nothing that we do is so important that it cannot be done safely.” Northumbria UCU agree. Northumbria UCU also recognise that everyone wants to get back to some kind of ‘normal’ as soon as possible. The prospect of teaching face-to-face, and seeing students and colleagues in person again, is exciting. But things are nowhere near ‘normal’ yet, and it is disingenuous and dangerous to pretend otherwise. Such a position risks threatening staff, students, and the community. This means the prospect of face-to-face teaching is, for some, deeply concerning, as it was last year. Just as concerning is the way such concerns have been ignored, again. Indeed, colleagues with concerns have already been told ‘Do F2F or resign’, by managers who admit they do not know the policies in place.

So even if you feel safe and comfortable, many do not; helping to make your colleagues feel safe makes everyone safer. Making campus activities as safe as possible also makes them as sustainable as possible for as long as possible; this would avoid the chaos, stress and overwork you and your students endured last year.

However, the Vice-Chancellor has told you and your students that changes to Covid measures have been made due to “high vaccine and low transmission rates nationally”, meaning masks and social distancing are no longer mandatory “in line” with the “sector”.

This is where Northumbria UCU must disagree. The evidence for such claims, and underpinning such changes, is unclear, especially since the opposite seems more credible:
  • There is significant variation across the HE sector see here.
  • Transmission rates are higher than they were at this point last year (4/9/20 – 0.8-1.0 in the North East and Yorkshire; 3/9/21 – 0.9-1.1 in the North East and Yorkshire; https://www.gov.uk/guidance/the-r-value-and-growth-rate).
  • The Guardian reports (10/9/21) ‘North-east England had the highest proportion of people of any region likely to test positive for coronavirus in the week to September 3’ and that ‘Nine in ten local areas in the UK have seen a week-on-week rise in Covid-19 case rates’.
  • Vaccine rates are relatively low in the 18-24 demographic, all rates are plateauing, and c.20% of the UK population are still not double-jabbed.
  • The vaccine is amazing, and to be encouraged, but not a magic bullet. Even when double-jabbed you can still contract and spread Covid, or be hospitalised by it, or endure long Covid, or die from it.
  • Some colleagues will need a third dose; all may need boosters if efficacy reduces after 6 months.

As the British Medical Journal (18/8/21) put it:
“If vaccination coverage is below 90%, colleges will have to rely on measures such as regular testing, masking, and distancing to keep campuses safe. …Infected students can infect older, vulnerable adults on campus, including teachers and university maintenance and service staff. There is also evidence that campus outbreaks can drive infection in the communities around the university.” https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/08/18/how-universities-can-make-re-opening-safer-in-the-autumn/

So, many of you will be undertaking duties where there is no social distancing or face coverings, no weekly testing, no detail about the “improved ventilation” the VC has promised (and no Co2 monitoring, as in schools and at Durham University). And the agreed FAQ, which averted industrial action last year, because it empowered you to work safely without detriment, was unilaterally withdrawn with no consultation or notice. As a reminder, here is what it said:

“The University prioritises the health, safety and wellbeing of staff and students, and has worked hard with our recognised Trade Unions and others to ensure this, so that on-campus activities (including teaching and research) and related activities elsewhere (eg. fieldwork and placements) are managed in a way that works for everyone during the pandemic. For the avoidance of doubt, for the areas where on-campus activity is planned we will assume that colleagues feel able to attend campus if requested. If you are asked to undertake activities and feel uncomfortable doing so, or are concerned about your health and wellbeing, or others’, contact your line manager in confidence as soon as possible, at any point during this academic year. They will support you to undertake activities which allow you to continue working remotely. The university will respect your position, you will not be pressured to return to the campus, your concerns and requests will be treated with sensitivity, and you will not be disadvantaged or viewed negatively for raising them.”

Removing this leaves many people feeling vulnerable, anxious, and worried for themselves and their loved ones.

Who else has concerns?
In their most recent report on Covid in universities, Independent SAGE say (see https://www.independentsage.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/8.-IS-Universities-Autumn-2021-FINAL-v2.pd ):
  • The UK government has stated that “Face coverings are no longer advised for students, staff and visitors either in teaching rooms or in communal areas.” Yet, a few lines later, it also states that “The government has removed the requirement to wear face coverings in law but expects and recommends that they are worn in enclosed and crowded spaces where people may come into contact with people they don’t normally meet.”
  • We urge universities to go beyond current government recommendations (which contain much mixed messaging) and, for instance, require face coverings in all multioccupancy indoors teaching and learning spaces and shared work spaces rather than leave it to individual choice.
  • Avoid ‘hygiene theatre’ (e.g., use of small plastic screens, face shields or hand sanitizer but no masks).
  • Make it easy for everyone to adhere to the rules (including the provision of face coverages and clear signage) which is especially important given the extent of government mixed messaging.
  • Take a proactive approach to protect all on campus through strong messages and clear collective expectations, rather than conveying that covid-safe behaviours are a matter of individual choice.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation in indoor spaces, including shared offices, meeting rooms, teaching and learning spaces, and food and other social spaces, and communicate clearly about what each space does and does not provide.

Indeed, it would seem that in certain circumstances your university sees the value in keeping protections in place. In the Risk Assessment for Summer Congregations (for 10-21 September, the same period for which you have been told masks and distancing are not mandatory on campus), under ‘Covid-19 arrangements’ staff are instructed to: ‘Have the vaccine when available, however all control measures to be adhered to’. Such ‘risk mitigation’ measures include ‘wearing a face coverings [sic] or visor, Perspex screens, people facing away from each other and sitting back to back’. Elsewhere the Risk Assessment says ‘Face coverings (covering both nose and mouth) should be worn by staff, students and visitors in all designated areas of the event including while transiting through buildings and all areas where 2m social distancing is not possible’.

Later it says ‘Attendees and staff will be reminded upon arrival to stay at least 2m away from people who don’t live with them’. This is not simply ‘encouraging’ people to wear masks or respect ‘personal space’: this is mandating. But why are instructions on what to do at Congregation different to what we have been told will be happening on Campus? Yes, Congregation is not on campus, but this is Northumbria’s Risk Assessment and it involves our staff and students (and their families). Why are there more measures in place to keep you safe when doing university business off campus than on it?

What should ‘safe’ look like now?
Government Covid guidance says universities should “encourage an atmosphere within their institution that supports actions people can take to keep themselves and others safe [and] involve staff and students when creating communications” (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-reopening-buildings-and-campuses/higher-education-covid-19-operational-guidance#outbreak-plans). Knowing this, at the recent Northumbria UCU Branch Meeting, you agreed that the university should:
  • Continue to require two negative LFTs each week
  • Keep the vaccination unit on campus beyond w/c 27/9
  • Provide weekly reporting of cases of Covid and ‘long Covid’, and provide more support for those with ‘long Covid’
  • Significantly reduce room capacities, provide detailed information about maximising ventilation in all rooms in relation to capacity, and install Carbon Dioxide monitors (as in schools and Durham Uni)
  • Mandate and support (not just ‘encourage’) the use of PPE in defined situations
  • Agree and communicate guidance on supporting overseas students, field trips, placements etc.
  • Revise Risk Assessments and share new Covid outbreak plans, and contingency plans for transitioning to online delivery and for non-attending students, as specified in government guidance .
  • Agree new FAQs which support, protect and reassure you that you can do what you feel is right, including asking students to use PPE, leaving an activity, or delivering online if you feel unsafe

To ensure this happens, hundreds of you recently voted in favour of the motion below, which will be communicated to HR and senior managers. As ever, with your incredible support, your UCU Executive will endeavour to act on this, to make your working life, your students, and our community, as safe as possible.

"Northumbria UCU condemns the decision by senior managers and Human Resources to remove measures designed to minimize the risk of Covid-19 to staff and students, including revoking the FAQ agreed with UCU, without consultation in good time with campus trade unions. This is a breach of trust and of health and safety guidance. Northumbria UCU instructs the Branch Executive to declare a dispute, with a view to balloting for industrial action as soon as possible thereafter, if the university fails to consult meaningfully with the trade unions and deliver enhanced health and safety measures before induction week, with the joint aim of enabling staff to undertake their duties in a safe campus environment, or supporting them to make alternative arrangements if required. "

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