Coronavirus: act now

The World Health Organisation has now announced that Covid-19 is a pandemic. There will be huge consequences for the health and safety of staff and students (not just a challenge to finances and business models). Branches should insist on protective measures going forward, with implementation of social distancing and closure policies (though bearing in mind the difficulty of ‘shutting’ campuses down when many students will have no other places to go). Online delivery is now essential in the short term but we should also make sure that the resources are provided for it and that it does not act as a precedent for the future when the crisis is over. We reproduce below some advice from UCU and motions and statements from different branches. We need to act now!

Advice, agreements, motions and statements

Thanks to UCL UCU, 16 March

TUC advice on home working (18 March) makes it clear that: “Bosses should pay for wi-fi for workers who don’t have internet access at home”

Andrew Chitty’s comprehensive list of sources on Covid-19 and UK higher education

Useful and concise legal advice from Lee Jones, Queen Mary UCU

Goldsmiths UCU proposal: Forward planning for May exams (19 March)

Newcastle UCU: ASOS and Coronavirus (17 March) – powerful letter to members

Excellent letter from Queen Mary UCU to students about teaching and assessment (16 March)

Brighton UCU advice to members (15 March)

Statement by Leeds UCU on the Covid-19 Crisis (15 March)

Sussex UCU letter to management (15 March)

Sheffield UCU response to coronavirus (14 March)

NEC motions on Co-vid-19 (13 March)

Liverpool UCU letter to management (13 March)

KCL UCU statement to SMT (13 March)

Comprehensive letter to HR from the Chair of Roehampton UCU (12 March)

Cambridge UCU motion on coronavirus (9 March)

Coventry UCU advice on coronavirus (11 March)

Birmingham UCU information for members (12 March)

Open Letter to Jo Grady and NEC calling for the ‘immediate suspension of all in-person academic activities’

@punk_academic’s blog on ‘Universities and the Coronavirus: questions of leadership”

Goldsmiths UCU statement of solidarity with Asian and Chinese communities

Southampton UCU

The following advice was circulated in early March (before most institutions moved to online provision) from UCU and should help shape your branch’s response. Full UCU advice on Coronavirus is here.  

A number of HEIs are considering a resort to on-line teaching with academics largely working outside the university.  While superficially this conforms to government encouragement to work from home, it raises a number of issues: 

  • Courses are not validated for on-line delivery and students are not prepared for this 
  • Teaching staff are not trained to deliver material online – what will happen after the ‘emergency’ is over?  Will academics be forced to continue this mode of delivery?  Will the University acquire copyright into material they would not otherwise obtain? 
  • The institution’s IT equipment, software and support is unlikely to be adequate 
  • Staff may not have the facilities (quiet space, wifi of sufficient quality, computing equipment etc.) to work from home: will they be pressured into doing this? 
  • There will have been no assessment of working conditions, especially of desks, chairs and equipment which is vital for ensuring that employees work safely 
  • There have been no risk assessments over psychological impact, working hours and stress 
  • Who will pay for additional costs such as heating, light, new insurance, telephone etc? 
  • How will an enforced shut-down directly affect professional services and other non-teaching staff? We need to consider the impact on wider roles (e.g. technicians, library, finance etc)       

On the other hand, there are a number of measures that universities could take, at relatively low cost and with little planning necessary.  Branches should therefore press them to take these steps under the Health and Safety at Work Act which puts an onus on employers to exercise a duty of care towards staff and under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations 2002 which cover biological threats.  Covid-19 is a known risk and employers should be taking reasonable steps to protect their workers including:   

  • Provision of posters encouraging everyone to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly and not to touch their face. 
  • Provision of more soap and towels in all toilets
  • Provision of hand gel where water and soap are impractical 
  • Provision of tissues and additional bins in every room so that they may be thrown away as soon as possible. 
  • Additional cleaning of frequently-touched surfaces such as doors, desks, equipment etc. 
  • Protective equipment – most likely to be gloves – for those such as cleaners in contact with potentially-contaminated surfaces 

Public Health England has identified hand washing and care not to touch the face as the best way to reduce transmission of the virus.  The measures above would go a long way to encouraging such hygiene. 

Those who may have been in contact with someone who has acquired the virus, who have travelled to areas with high numbers of cases and those who have the symptoms of Covid-19 are asked to stay at home until a test proves negative.  If workers are not being paid for this time, we believe that they will be reluctant to declare their status for fear of loss of income, especially the most vulnerable: low-paid workers and hourly-paid staff. 

Branches should ask management to ensure that the following steps are taken and that all staff, included those contracted out, are informed: 

  • That all staff have access to paid sick leave from the first day of illness 
  • That in suspected cases of Covid-19, the requirement for a fit note on the 8th day of absence is suspended 
  • That ‘self-isolation’ or formal quarantine is fully paid and does not count towards sickness absence totals. 

Without these measures, employers may be in breach of the regulations in that they would not be addressing a known risk for transmission of the virus, in the same way as additional hygiene measures.  

Institutions that have moved to online delivery

List (regularly updated) from WonkHE

University library closures

Crowdsourced list available here.

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