Public Health and Covid-19 in Birmingham: UCU Branches Call for All-Online Teaching in Term 1

Joint Statement from Birmingham City University UCU and the University of Birmingham UCU branches on the impacts of campus reopenings

Over the next two weeks, Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham will welcome back over 61,000 students to the city [1]. They employ well over 11,000 staff [2]. Birmingham currently has the second highest rate of 7 day infection in England [3], currently standing at 84.5 per 100, 000, with young people showing proportionally high levels of infection.

Having worked with employers through our Health and Safety representatives over recent months, we have come to the unavoidable conclusion that the risk of widespread transmission of Covid-19 as a result of current plans to reopen is far higher than is being publicly acknowledged. Having reviewed the evidence and the detailed University risk assessments, we believe current plans to return to face to face teaching and encourage staff and students back onto campus will expose our city to a major outbreak. 

In our view, the two Universities have failed to put in place the necessary regular testing of staff and students; failed to ensure safe teaching spaces or working environments; failed to properly consider student housing; and failed to properly timetable classes in a Covid-secure manner. There also remain serious concerns over how students who may need to quarantine on arrival will be supported and It is unclear what support will be in place for students and staff who commute to campus using public transport, or who are living with vulnerable family members.

Furthermore, by actively pursuing ‘business as usual’ – forcing staff back into the office, rather than prioritising remote working, and insisting on face to face teaching in often small, overcrowded and unsafe teaching spaces, the Universities are actively creating a situation in which we should expect significant on-site transmission.

All of this will put added strain on public services at a critical time and risk a situation in which outbreaks on site become outbreaks in the community.

The University and College Union (UCU) therefore call on Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham to follow the national UCU position, and the significant weight of scientific evidence from government SAGE, Independent SAGE, and the British Medical Journal, and move all teaching online for the Autumn term. Will also call on the University of Birmingham to drop plans for compulsory office based working, where staff have been able to work remotely in recent months.

As the recent government SAGE report indicates, campus outbreaks of Covid-19 are inevitable, and the likely consequences severe unless steps are taken now. While we will continue to work with our employers on this important matter, we need action before it is too late.

Notes:

[1] According to the 2018/19 Higher Education Statistics Agency data set.

[2] Based on the annual accounts of the two Universities. The figure of 11,000 is the figure for full time equivalent staff numbers and does not include thousands more staff on hourly paid or fractional contracts.

[3] Taken from: https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/latest-coronavirus-rate-every-part-18914388

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