Five steps to take if you are asked to return to campus

Follow these steps in order, starting with a joint approach with your colleagues:

1) Check the local risk assessment for your location of work. 

The employer must produce this for every area and activity of the university – don’t take no for an answer when you ask your manager to see it. Discuss your concerns with your colleagues. Report any issues/problems to QMUCU, using this form.

You can access risk assessments here.

2) Organise/attend a meeting of colleagues to discuss safety concerns and develop an approach for raising them with your manager. 

Your colleagues are often facing similar challenges and asking themselves similar questions. They can be a vital source of support and solidarity when responding to management requests. Contact a UCU rep in your department for help organising a meeting. 

If possible, use this opportunity to agree a common position with your colleagues about returning to campus and develop a strategy for persuading your line manager to avoid unsafe practices. Colleagues in more secure and senior positions should lead wherever possible. UCU Health and Safety reps can also act as a confidential and anonymous conduit for communications with your line manager (see reporting link in step one).

When raising concerns with your manager, you should focus first and foremost on the health and safety risks. You can use resources from our website to support your arguments (see our previous comms here and here). As well as referring to the risks of returning to campus given high community infection rates, the inherent risks of university settings for disease transmission, and a lack of testing, you can also raise practical concerns. Here are some suggestions:

  • Identify ways to replace activities with online substitutes.
  • Think about equity: not all staff will be able to return to campus, so it won’t be possible to deliver the same teaching to every student. 
  • Staff with health conditions or risk factors will be subjected to unfair and potentially inappropriate conversations about their health with students if they are asked why they are not teaching face-to-face.
  • While online teaching can be practically challenging, so can face-to-face teaching while observing distancing: students have to sit apart, no small group work will be possible, rooms will have limited capacity, many students will choose to wear masks making speaking more difficult, etc.
  • Given how likely further outbreaks and lockdowns are, any plan to return to face-to-face teaching will likely have to be reversed anyway.
  • Given limited resources, it is better to prepare for online teaching to the highest practical standard than to prepare inadequately for a mixture of face-to-face and online.

3) Ask for an Equality Impact Assessment of any significant change in working practices as a result of COVID-19. 

The changes introduced to manage COVID-19 can affect particular groups of staff with protected characteristics in unfair and discriminatory ways. The employer must assess the equalities impact of any changes to ensure this does not happen. You can ask for this to be done yourself, or you can approach your local EDI committee. If you need union support with making this request, contact your local union rep or the branch committee.

4)  If you still have to return to campus, discuss your situation with your line manager and fill in your individual health assessment questionnaire. 

If you are still asked to return to campus after following the above steps, you will need to take your individual situation into account. Ultimately, it is your line manager’s responsibility to assess the risk of your return to campus, but you can help by conveying the relevant information. This is particularly important for those in at risk groups. Inform your line manager of any relevant health issues, household circumstances, or caring responsibilities which may prevent you from returning to campus. QMUCU has access to template letters which can help you formulate your communications to managers. Contact us for more information.  

Your line manager will ask you to return your individual health assessment questionnaire to calculate your “Covid Age” (a stylised measure of risk). However, you should only return this form if you have been specifically asked to return to campus or you have a particular need to visit campus. Even then, you should make it clear that returning this form does not indicate your consent or willingness to return to campus, merely that you want all the risks considered if you have to return. Remember the employer needs you to return this form before you return to campus, so don’t send it without getting reassurances in writing about how it will be used. You do not need to share your form with your line manager if you are not deemed at risk – you can simply return your Covid Age. 

If your assessment does identify relevant underlying conditions, you will probably be referred to Occupational Health for further assessment. Unfortunately, this process is still untested and we do not know whether the outcomes will be reasonable. The Covid Age methodology is quite simplistic and opaque. Furthermore, Occupational Health at Queen Mary was recently outsourced. This is why we prefer the collective approach outlined above, and advise this step as a last resort. 

Finally, when you return the form, ensure your data is held securely, not in your manager’s email inbox. Furthermore, if you have had previous problems with your line manager, you can ask for it to be handled by someone else. 

5) Know your rights, especially regarding your right to leave an unsafe workplace. 

The employer has a duty to protect the health and safety of its employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974). It also has a duty to conduct a risk assessment under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999). You can refer to these obligations when dealing with management requests. If, despite this, you are put in a situation at work which presents a serious and imminent danger, you have a right under Section 44 of the Employment Act (1996) to take appropriate steps to protect yourself, including leaving and refusing to return to the workplace, without fear of repercussions. This is an individual rather than a collective right, so UCU cannot call on members to do this, but we can advise you that you have this right. For more information about Section 44, see the helpful resources prepared by UCU, the TUC, and UVW.