University of Birmingham's Aston Webb Great Hall

University of Birmingham campus teaching arrangements unsafe: Open letter to the University of Birmingham and the Director of Public Health for Birmingham

This is an open letter to the University of Birmingham and the Director of Public Health for Birmingham. The University has systematically stated that its return to campus plans are safe and that the Director of Public Health for Birmingham entirely endorses this view. We call this into question.

The University of Birmingham branch of UCU does not believe that the return to campus plans are safe. We have informed the University of Birmingham of this fact on multiple occasions.

In particular:

  • Risk assessments have been drafted with little input from H&S reps, in most cases these have been presented to us at extremely late notice, and without the opportunity for any meaningful input. UCU expect UCU H&S reps to be given sufficient detail on infections within workplaces to undertake investigations, inspections and to engage in meaningful consultation on all health and safety measures needed within the workplace to prevent exposure to Covid-19. This has not been able to happen in the case of University of Birmingham.
  • Birmingham as a city has from Tuesday 15 September 2020 had in place special measures whereby Birmingham residents are not able to mix with people they don’t live with, in their homes or gardens. Since then infections have risen rapidly. At present Birmingham has around double the number of infections it had at its peak earlier in the year.

Under these circumstances we would obviously expect that the University would put in place reasonable measures to protect its staff from infection. We note the continual reference made by the University of Birmingham to its consultation with the Director of Public Health for Birmingham. The University has sought to use its endorsement by the Director of Public Health for Birmingham to legitimate its current policy. Yet we cannot help but notice that Birmingham currently has the highest rate of infections in the country – suggesting that the Public Health for Birmingham’s advice and policies might not be as effective as the University of Birmingham seem to believe.

  • We are receiving regular reports of the lack of consideration for practicalities of social distancing – especially doorways and the incorrectly calculated spacing in teaching rooms. We know that there is a system of ‘wardens’ introduced on campus; but all reports that we have received suggest this does little to solve the problem of students entering and leaving classrooms. For instance, in the induction events that took place last week, students were seen to leave classes without any measures in place to prevent them from being shoulder-to-shoulder as they left the room. Moreover, it is unclear to us how wardens will be trained to deal with these issues, and whether they will be effective at managing the campus traffic of fellow students.
  • It is already clear that students are not abiding by social distance measures. We know that the University issued a number of statements to its own students acknowledging that this is the case over the last week, as communicated to the University of Birmingham by our Regional Officer on 25 September 2020.
  • We know that there have already been several Covid cases on campus already reported over the past few weeks, despite the fact that term has not even yet started and while the University is currently very empty in comparison to how it will be for the next 11 weeks.
  • We are extremely alarmed by the information provided by the University’s Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Staffing), in our meeting with him on 24 September, where he said that staff and UCU would only be informed of infections if that occurred in a cluster of 10. UCU expect UCU H&S reps to be given sufficient detail on infections within workplaces to undertake investigations, inspections and to engage in meaningful consultation on all health and safety measures needed within the workplace to prevent exposure to Covid-19. If we are only to be told of cases where there is a cluster of 10, then investigations/inspections will clearly not be possible. We also cannot understand how or why you define a cluster as 10 infections. Public Health England defines a cluster as 2 or more infections. The claim of the Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Staffing) that Public Health for Birmingham has a different definition does therefore seem incredible.
  • This is indicative of a wider problem of the management culture at the University of Birmingham, whereby there is a hostility towards consultation with trade unions. For instance, it took several months for the University to acknowledge and respond to a UCU regional office letter of concern over lack of reasonable time off for safety reps which was sent in February 2020. Likewise, our safety reps have been told by local management that they should “desist” from raising safety concerns. University senior management have threatened “consequences” for raising safety concerns with staff and public.
  • The track and trace system that UoB is employing is sketchy. From what the Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Staffing) tells us, it will rely on infected students needing to remember the names of the students that they sat next to. How they would be expected to remember those names is not clear and this surely cannot be an effective way of ensuring that contact by those who are infected is traced. We also do not understand why the University of Birmingham would refuse to inform staff when they have taught a student who has since been found to have been infected.
  • The face masks that are to be provided by UoB are simply cotton cloth. The TUC advises that the most effective form of face mask is the asbestos respirator level 3 (FFP3). We insist that this be provided to all staff if they are to be forced to work on campus. Until this has been agreed, the PPE that has been put in place cannot be considered sufficient.
  • We do not understand why no exemptions are being made for staff with health conditions or for BAME staff. From our discussions with staff who have visited Occupational Health, even where staff are considered at high risk of hospitalization, they are still being instructed to be on campus. 
  • We understand the advice being issued is that staff on campus can choose between using a visor and wearing a face mask. This is despite the fact that Birmingham City Council has made clear that visors do not offer sufficient protection, and therefore the University is openly advising staff to operate in an unsafe manner.  
  • The recent statement by the College of Social Sciences Education Team, which requires staff who are ill to find alternative ways to do teaching, illustrates the callous approach that the University is taking towards its staff, and the pressure it is putting on staff to deliver on-campus teaching. This will clearly lead in some instances to staff members being pressured to work on campus despite them being ill or at risk of contracting covid. The University of Birmingham must surely be aware of the case of Paola de Simone, an Argentinian university professor who died earlier this month of suspected coronavirus after gasping for breath while holding a Zoom lecture for students. We can only hope that the University of Birmingham does not intend to have a similar episode at its institution.
  • We note that the Head of College of Arts and Law has been circulating instructions to staff in his college, stating that, “In the absence of a medical/OH note stating that a member of academic staff should not undertake face-to-face teaching, the College expects staff to undertake this teaching until such time as they have a medical/OH note.” Yet the University of Birmingham must surely be aware that staff are having to wait for considerable lengths of time to have the Occupational Health (OH) meetings that are being set up for them by the University. The lack of University’s resources cannot and should not be used as a reason to force staff with underlying health conditions to attend on-campus teaching, simply because they have not been able to schedule an OH appointment (with waiting times currently running at around 4-6 weeks).
  • We have already pointed out to the University of Birmingham, in an email sent on 17 September and earlier in an email sent on 1 September, the University’s own procedures in managing the return to working on campus were not being followed across most of the College of Social Sciences, in Computer Science, in Chemistry, and in the Department of Political Science and International Studies.
  • We reject the use of the ‘covid calculator’ as the means through which to decide whether staff should be working/teaching on campus. This takes into account only the ‘risk of hospitalization’ and therefore the immediate chances of being ill with covid symptoms. In most cases, anyway, the recommendation is that staff should be expected to work/teach on campus, even if they are at high risk of hospitalization. Worse still, this does nothing to take into account the risk of ‘long covid’. Scientific evidence is increasingly showing that many people, including those who get over the initial infection easily, have ended up with serious symptoms lasting months. We have detailed these risks as set out in the scientific literature and by the scientific community, and we see no evidence that the University of Birmingham has taken these risks into account.
  • The risk assessments that we have received have not been reassuring. They have often been updated on the internet very late. Many do not make it clear that high risks have been mitigated. Many have not been updated to consider teaching rooms and only consider other aspects of the University other than teaching. In many cases the major form of mitigation, put in place to reduce risk, comes only from asking staff to open the windows. It is not clear how this change can produce such a dramatic reduction in risk, and indeed this would seem to be more a case of ‘wishful thinking’. We also do not understand how this measure is intended to last throughout the winter.
  • We are concerned that the University’s “GoCat” guidance for teachers put an unreasonable amount of responsibility on the shoulders of staff in terms of managing the health and safety situation, especially for those teaching in the classroom. Teaching staff are not health and safety experts and cannot be expected to deal with health and safety situations unless they are qualified to do so. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a duty on employees to take reasonable care to ensure they do not endanger themselves or anyone else who may be affected by their work activities. It is unreasonable of the University of Birmingham to put staff in a situation where they would be unable to uphold this responsibility. 
  • In terms of room management, there seems to be no attempt, as far as we can see, to prevent multiple cohorts using a space in a single day, or to prevent staff/students working across multiple buildings.
  • We have had multiple reports that bins are not made available for the ‘wipes’ that staff are being instructed to use for wiping down work stations before and after teaching sessions. We can also only assume that students will be passing wipes between themselves once they have been asked to wipe down their work stations. This surely increases further the risk of infection.
  • We are very concerned that buildings will now only be closed where there is a ‘confirmed’ case of covid – not a suspected case (as was previously the case) – this means that there is a very real possibility that a building will remain in use for several days between the suspected case occurring and it being confirmed.
  • We note that staff are told that “If staff or students feel that a teaching session is not Covid compliant, as outlined above, they are able to leave the session (students) or to cancel and rearrange the session (staff).” – but it is unclear how staff would know or are being trained to identify a lack of covid compliance. 
  • It has not been made clear to staff what they should do in instances where they suspect that a student is infected with Covid.

The scientific advice is strongly in favour of online teaching as a default option.

The report of the Independent SAGE group of experts, led by Sir David King, the former Scientific Adviser to the government, advised universities against resuming face-to-face teaching because risks of infection are too high and the view of the SAGE group of experts, that all HE institutions should expect to have cases of COVID-19 and it is highly likely that some HE providers and relevant local health agencies will have to manage the consequences of a significant outbreak.

Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome Trust, member of SAGE, said only yesterday: ‘It is, of course, concerning to see the number of cases among university students…Teaching in further + HE should be online, except in those few courses where it is impossible’.

The Sage group has made clear that “All HE institutions should expect to have cases of COVID-19 and it is highly likely that some HE providers and relevant local health agencies will have to manage the consequences of a significant outbreak either directly associated with their setting or within their local community or region”, and that, “there are a higher proportion of asymptomatic cases among younger age groups, meaning that cases and outbreaks are likely to be harder to detect among student populations”.

With all of the above in mind, there is no obvious reason to risk on-campus teaching given that teaching/working as a default is clearly reasonably practicable and therefore would make a massive impact in terms of reducing unnecessary risk.

The University of Birmingham should be aware that in dealing with risk in the workplace, risks should be reduced to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures, in order of priority, with eliminating the risk at the top of the list and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) as the last resort. It is a breach of health and safety law for an employer to move straight to PPE without considering other ways of eliminating or reducing risk to health and safety. There is a very straightforward and easy way to eliminate the risk almost entirely: move to online teaching/working as a default. This has very little costs associated with it. According to the University of Birmingham’s own website, teaching online is an effective way to teach.

As such, it would clearly be reasonably practicable to move to online teaching/working as a default option in order to eliminate a very large amount of risk of infections.

With the large amount of information that the University of Birmingham and the Director of Public Health for Birmingham have been provided with, it is clearly the case that the University of Birmingham senior management will be liable for any injuries, deaths or illnesses that occur over the coming weeks, unless the move to online teaching/working as default is put in place.

In the light of all of the above, we insist that the University should move immediately to online teaching/working as a default for all staff. We do not believe the University campus to be a safe workplace.

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