As the new term approaches, many staff have expressed concerns about campus safety and Covid-19. Some colleagues are worried about the safety of teaching spaces. Others in professional services are worried about an unnecessary return to minimum hours on campus.
It is not always easy to raise these questions in staff meetings or with your line manager. That is why this week your representatives wrote an open letter to the Principal, Colin Bailey, with 10 key questions about campus safety and Covid-19. These questions are based directly on the concerns which you have raised in surveys, emails to reps, and branch meetings. The letter discusses face masks, ventilation, vaccinations, testing, the right of staff to refuse to enter an unsafe workplace, and contingency planning. You can read the text of the letter below. When the Principal sends a response, you will be sent a copy of his reply as soon as possible.
Dear Professor Bailey,
As staff and students prepare for the beginning of a new academic year, we are writing to you for information and assurances regarding the safety of campus in relation to Covid-19.
Although the vaccination programme has significantly reduced the health risks posed by the pandemic, it has far from eliminated them. The Delta variant is more infectious and severe; case numbers remain high; hospitalisations are increasing; and vaccination uptake among young people, though rising, remains comparatively low. A significant number of people remain vulnerable to Covid because they cannot receive the vaccine or because they have underlying health conditions which may make it less effective. Moreover, the health and social effects of the pandemic continue to be distributed unequally by ethnicity, gender, age, class, and disability.
While many staff want to return to in-person activities, many also have questions and anxieties about how safe this will be and what arrangements will be in place to ensure this. We previously wrote to you in July with the findings of a survey we conducted of staff opinion which reflected many of these concerns. Additional questions have since arisen in response to the changing nature of the pandemic and plans for the new academic year. You can take a significant step towards reassuring staff by addressing the questions below:
- Will the university mandate the wearing of face masks in all shared indoor spaces, including teaching spaces?
Wearing a face mask is one of the most basic and widely understood controls which can be implemented to control the spread of coronavirus. We now know that the virus is mostly transmitted by airborne means and that face masks have been shown to mitigate against these risks. In our survey, staff overwhelmingly said they supported a face mask mandate.
- Will the university increase the minimum ventilation rate for rooms in the institutional risk assessment?
In the most recent update of the institutional risk assessment, the university removed the target to maintain ventilation rates of 10 l/s/p. We understand that rates of as low as 5 l/s/p are now being deemed acceptable across campus. SAGE and CIBSE have recommended that minimum rates should be 10 l/s/p.
- Will the university share information on the recorded ventilation rates of rooms on campus?
We understand that the university has carried out monitoring of ventilation rates in all rooms across campus. While this has resulted in generic assurances about ventilation rates, it is also important to provide room-by-room information so that staff can access this information and can take appropriate steps to protect themselves and others. On a recent visit to campus the HSE recommended the introduction of a traffic light system to share this information with staff. At the very least, up to date and comprehensive data on recorded ventilation rates in all rooms should be provided to trade union health and safety representatives. In connection with this, we would remind you of your obligations under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977.
- Will the university place CO2 monitors in rooms to allow staff to check that good ventilation is being achieved?
CO2 monitors are an effective and relatively inexpensive tool for assessing ventilation. Staff can easily interpret the results and use the readings to inform their actions in improving ventilation in a given space (such as opening windows or adjusting occupancy). CO2 monitors are already being used widely in schools for this purpose.
- Will the university provide HEPA filters to improve air quality in rooms with ventilation rates consistently below 10 l/s/p?
It is sometimes not possible to maintain a good ventilation rate using natural or existing mechanical ventilation. Portable HEPA filters can filter out virus-bearing particles from the air and thereby reduce the likelihood of transmission. There will be an expense associated with installing these devices, but the university has already proven it has the capacity to rapidly install mixed-mode education hardware in classrooms.
- Will the university implement a vaccine mandate for students?
Vaccination remains the most powerful tool we have to deal with the pandemic, but most students were among the last age group to be offered the vaccine. Uptake remains comparatively low among younger people, and especially low in London where a large number of our students live. A majority of staff in our survey supported vaccination mandates for university students. Many major universities in the US have also successfully introduced vaccine mandates.
- Will the university implement a testing mandate for students on their return to campus?
There is now a well-developed testing infrastructure in the UK, with self-testing kits widely available. Just as with many large entertainment and sporting venues and international travel, it is eminently feasible to require that students submit negative test results before returning to campus accommodation or the teaching term.
- Will you confirm that no staff member will suffer detriment if they do not wish to return to campus if they do not believe it is safe?
While there is a willingness among many staff to return to campus, especially if adequate precautions are being taken, there are also some who – often due to health conditions or family circumstances, or because they are not in a student-facing role – still do not wish to do so. A forced return to campus for these staff would be very bad for morale, and would put line managers in a very difficult position. It also has the potential to amount to discrimination where the staff concerned have protected characteristics. There is a risk this could generate grievances and even employment tribunal cases. We would also remind you that, per section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, workers have “the right not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by his or her employer done on the ground that […] in circumstances of danger which the worker reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he or she could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he or she left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his or her place of work or any dangerous part of his or her place of work.”
- What contingency plans are in place in the event that large numbers of staff or students need to self-isolate?
While we sincerely hope this will not come to pass, it remains possible that there could be outbreaks among our staff and student body. By law, these individuals would still need to self-isolate. If the number becomes significant, this could have a serious impact on our ability to deliver face-to-face teaching.
- What contingency plans are in place in the event that social distancing is reintroduced?
In recent communications to staff you have indicated that if the pandemic worsens over the autumn and winter, it may be necessary to reintroduce social distancing. This would have a massive impact on our ability to deliver face-to-face teaching as currently timetabled and would involve immense disruption. It would also generate a significant additional workload for academic and professional services staff.
We look forward to receiving your responses to the above questions. Given the widespread interest and concern in these matters, we have circulated this letter to our members and will be sharing your response with them.
QMUCU Branch Chair, on behalf of QMUCU branch committee