Press Release: University “putting city at risk” as Birmingham sees “worrying” rise in hospital admissions

Press contact: James Brackley (UCU), jb4243@hotmail.com; Mike Moore (UNISON), mich_moore@hotmail.co.uk;
07/09/2020

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Unions at the University of Birmingham have expressed serious concerns about plans to reopen the Edgbaston campus, calling the current plans “reckless” and “not fit for purpose” [1].

There have been at least three confirmed cases of Covid-19 on campus among support staff, including one case that unions believe is likely to be the result of onsite transmission, before the campus has even reopened.

The University is set for a full re-opening from the 14 September, welcoming back 35,000 students, including an additional 1,100 extra first year students due to the A-level results fiasco [2].

Current plans, seen by the unions, outline mandatory face to face teaching and return to office working for support staff, without mandatory use of face coverings [3], often poor ventilation in enclosed spaces, and no comprehensive testing or tracing system in place.

Speaking on behalf of UCU, branch President David Bailey described the plans as “setting the scene for a major outbreak; putting staff and students at risk, all seemingly driven by the need to secure lucrative student fees for the start of term. Any major outbreak could put the entire city at risk”. UCU are following national calls for teaching in the Autumn term to be moved online [5].

Multiple emails sent to staff call on them to return to the office in order to create a “vibrant campus” in time for the return of students. In an email sent to all staff on 7 July, Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood stated:

“We are also expecting our students to return to campus for the start of the academic year and want to ensure that our staff are on campus to welcome and support them so that when they arrive they feel part of our vibrant community” [4].

Staff health and safety representatives have repeatedly urged the University to allow staff to work remotely where possible, and only work on campus where it is absolutely necessary. Mike Moore, the UNISON branch secretary at the University, remarked that “controlling numbers on campus is absolutely vital to protect both those who can work from home and those who need to work on campus keeping vital services going. By requiring everyone to return regardless of service need, the University is operating against both the fundamental principles of health and safety as well as basic common sense.”

The unions’ concerns come as a West Midlands Combined Authority briefing cited 686 cases of infection in the region during the week up to 31 August, with 45% of new cases among 18 to 34-year-olds in Birmingham [6].

The chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham, Dr David Rosser, described the “worrying” increase in hospital admissions, and the death of a 29 year old just last week [6]. The city has been put on the national watch list for areas needing enhanced support [7].

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NOTES TO THE EDITOR:

[1] Specific objections include face to face teaching across all modules and programmes in poorly ventilated rooms, which will be operating at 50% capacity without mandatory face coverings or PPE. Staff and students will be moving from building to building, working in multiple rooms that will only be cleaned “daily”. The emphasis on office working and face to face teaching will create additional pressure on public transport and other public services, and lead to multiple opportunities for transmission of Covid-19 on and off campus. https://birminghamucu.org/2020/09/01/important-all-members-update-on-return-to-on-campus-working/
[2] Following clearing, the University is expecting 6,978 first year undergraduate students. This is 1,092 above target due to re-grading of A-level results. Last years’ total student population was 35,445 according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
[3] As of Monday 7 Sept, the University have agreed with us that face coverings should in theory be mandatory. However, they have been written to all staff to advise that no-one should be questioned if they aren’t wearing a mask, even in close 1m teaching settings.
[4] Staff from across the University have reported that local managers are implementing mandatory rota systems, with all staff expected to work on campus at least part of the week, with no consideration given to whether remote working remains a viable option for the job role.
Examples of needless on-campus working include:
● A welfare professional required to come onto campus four days a week, simply to sit in room by themselves and make Zoom calls to students;
● A finance officer required on campus at least two days a week, to produce the same reports they have been producing throughout lockdown;
● A communications professional required to return to campus simply to update pages which can be accessed from anywhere in the world;
For further information please contact press contacts, above.
[5] https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10964/Universities-must-not-become-the-care-homes-of-a-Covid-second-wave
[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-england-birmingham-53946248?ns_mchannel=social&ns_source=twitter&ns_campaign=bbc_live&ns_linkname=5f5268aca9c71d02bf1cc303%26%27Worrying%27%20rise%20in%20Covid%20hospital%20admissions%262020-09-04T16%3A55%3A02%2B00%3A00&ns_fee=0&pinned_post_locator=urn:asset:00e519f5-9ae8-4801-9b18-405c50af573a&pinned_post_asset_id=5f5268aca9c71d02bf1cc303&pinned_post_type=share
[7] https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/its-not-falling-way-hoped-18865260

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