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Important all members update on return to on-campus working

Dear BUCU members,

This is an important communication on the upcoming re-opening of campus. Please read this advice carefully and take this advice into your upcoming one-to-one ‘return to work on campus’ meeting with your line manager (which every staff member should have before returning to campus).

Key points:

BUCU have been working hard to review the University’s plans on campus re-opening, including a detailed review of the latest building by building risk assessments. Together with UNISON and other campus unions our trained Health and Safety reps have now fed back our specific objections to the University.

BUCU position on face-to-face teaching: Having reviewed the detailed risk assessments, we have come to the conclusion that the University’s plans for a return to face-to-face teaching are not fit for purpose and put staff, students, and the wider community at significant risk.

Alarmingly, it now seems that many, possibly most, departments across the University are not even carrying out ‘return to work on campus’ meetings, which we had been told by the University management would be akin to a personal risk assessment for each staff member.

Of particular concern are:

  • Lack of adequate measures to protect against transmission of Covid-19 including lack of proper ventilation, lack of PPE for staff, lack of mandatory face coverings in class with just 1m distancing, inadequate cleaning of classroom facilities, inadequate social distancing in some communal settings, and insufficient testing capacity.

All risk assessments, and initial advice from the University, include the phrase that work should be performed from home wherever possible. Our view is that small group teaching can and should be delivered from home via our various online teaching platforms so that all teaching for the Autumn term should be moved fully online.

Given that buildings will need to be closed and courses moved online as cases are confirmed through the term it surely makes sense to plan for online delivery from the outset to avoid further disruption and to ensure that we are all safe.

This is in line with recent UCU national position, that there should be no default face-to-face teaching.

It also echoes the views of Independent Sage – that all teaching should be online where possible.

BUCU position on return to ‘rota’ based office working: as above, we believe that recent advice to staff from the University stating that there is an ‘expectation’ that staff will return to the office in order to return to ‘normality’ and create a ‘vibrant campus’ experience are unnecessary and incredibly reckless. Particularly where this relates to staff who clearly are able to work from home. Of particular concern are:

  • Lack of adequate measures to protect against transmission of Covid-19 including lack of proper ventilation, lack of detail on how often shared facilities will be cleaned, and insufficient testing. We also note that some support staff will be working directly with students in enclosed spaces, in which case the above concerns in relation to small group teaching also apply.

All risk assessments, and initial advice from the University, include the phrase that work should be performed from home wherever possible. Staff who are able to work from home should clearly continue to do so, with work only returning to campus when there is a clear reason to be on campus. Wherever work can be done remotely, for example via email, Zoom, or via remote VPN, it should be done remotely.

BUCU advice for members being asked to return to campus: Having reviewed them careful, our view is that the University’s plans, particularly in relation to air born transmission, are largely ‘reactive’. This means that transmission among individuals, particularly students and young people, with few or no symptoms on site cannot be ruled out and will not be detectable until it is too late.

Based on recent communications it also appears that the recommendation in the our risk assessments to work remotely wherever possible is not currently being taken up in good faith by the University, and the commitment by the University to hold meaningful one to one conversations, which was already insufficient, has been reduced to an online form and in many cases little more than a box ticking exercise.

We also note that by making face to face teaching and office working widespread, the University is putting greater strain on public transport and other public services, which increases the risk to the wider community.

We therefore advise members to make use of this email and our model email to line managers to draft an email to your line manager if you feel that returning to campus may put you and your household at risk. In the first instance you should look to arrange remote working with your line manager, outlining the concerns raised in this email and pointing out that the University has made a commitment to move to remote working wherever possible.

Where your line manager refuses then it may be the case that they are putting you at risk of serious and imminent danger, especially once students return and once transmission on campus starts to take place. If and when you are placed at serious and imminent danger by your employer due to unsafe working conditions then you may be entitled to cite health and safety legislation in refusing to come to work. We advise you to read the following TUC guidance and contact BUCU if you are being put in this situation so that we can urgently raise the issue on your behalf.

TUC guidance on refusing to work due to coronavirus

Published risk assessments available on the University intranet (note: it is a legal requirement for the University to complete a risk assessment, if a risk assessment has not been completed for your building you should not be asked to come in under any circumstances. These documents have so far been published without fully addressing the concerns raised by the campus trade unions)

Cases on campus and on campus transmission: Finally, we are disappointed to report that the University appear to be stepping back from previous commitments to communicate confirmed cases of Covid-19 with staff. We can report that there have already been confirmed cases among staff at the University Nursery and Muirhead Tower. We can also report that there has been a confirmed case of on-campus transmission in the Muirhead Tower, and understand that the building has been temporarily closed and cleaned.

More details: https://uobunison.org.uk/covid-cases-aug20

We need absolute transparency on this issue if staff and students are to trust that campus is safe. We call on the University to honour commitments made to communicate cases with all staff and to continue to close buildings where cases are confirmed. This should include all teaching buildings wherever there are suspected cases until either the individuals have been tested or the building closed and deep cleaned.

Covid-19 is a dangerous disease that is not only deadly, but often comes with severe and long term effects that can last for months, and in some cases show no signs of subsiding. For a review of the evidence and summary of why all teaching must be moved online we recommend reading the following from #USSBriefs: Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn.

On behalf of BUCU

Contact: admin@birminghamucu.org 

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