Advice for members on safety and school closures. More to follow!

Advice to members at start of spring term – updated 05/01/20

Coronavirus Health and Safety

Following the government announcement of a new national lockdown on Monday the 4th January 2020 we will be keeping this post up to date with all of the latest advice for members.

If your question isn’t answered below you can email us at unisonbham@bham.ac.uk, call us on 07964926949 or message us on Facebook or Twitter.

The new variant of Covid-19 and what it means

Much of the huge rise in Covid-19 cases across the country as well as the concern in scientific circles is linked to a new variant of Covid-19 which appears to spread much more easily than other forms of the virus.

While they do not have evidence at present that the new variant causes more severe illness, any increase in spread puts more people at risk, particularly those groups we know are at of heightened risk from the virus.

In addition, though, more and more evidence is being produced about the long-term impact of Covid-19 on all groups, with symptoms linked to so-called “long covid“.

Scientific advice suggests that all employers need to redouble their efforts to stop the virus spreading, and the national lockdown adds an extra impetus behind this. It’s vital that only absolutely essential activity on campus continues in these circumstances.  

Concerns regarding your health or the health of those you live with

  • All clinically extremely vulnerable people (i.e. those who have received an official “shielding” letter) have been advised to shield by the government (this guidance now applies across the country). This is very clear – the government state that you should not attend work and your employer should make alternative arrangements such as home working or furlough. 
  • If you are clinically vulnerable then we would advise you to be very cautious about on-campus work, particularly if you need to use public transport to travel in. If your GP or another medical professional states that you shouldn’t be working on campus at the moment the University should not expect you to come in, instead looking at alternatives such as home working or furlough. Any individual risk assessment made about your condition should be reviewed in light of the lockdown and the new variant of the virus. 
  • National agreements between Universities and unions state that the risks the virus pose to those who live with staff will be taken into account and considered sympathetically. Again this should be assessed and reviewed as part of the increased risks now posed by on-campus working

Other risk factors 

The University in its “return to on campus work” guidance recognises heightened risk for other groups of staff including BAME individuals, people over 60, older males (over 50) and those with a BMI of above 30.

The University has encouraged line managers to take these risks into account when deciding who to instruct to return to work on campus and completing individual and building-specific risk assessments. Again these decisions need to be reviewed in light of the heightened risk from this virus.

These conditions also play a big part in risk when combined with other factors – meaning that it might make occupational health advice (or updated advice where appropriate) even more important. 

Childcare and other caring responsibilities

While the University has in a recent email highlighted on the apparent confirmation from government that University staff qualify as “critical workers” and can therefore continue to send children from school, they have also agreed a “best endeavours” approach should be taken aside from this at least in the short-term, so if people do have caring requirements that impact on their work we feel this means that line managers need to be understanding and accommodating by, for example, reducing or moving working hours until things improve. 

Even though some managers may feel that this solves a lot of childcare issues – there’s no guarantee that schools will find places for all of the children of key workers, particularly if this represents a broader extension of provision in comparison to the last lockdown. Other related care before and after school may be unaffected and remain inaccessible to parents, and relying on relatives for care for both children and vulnerable adults is of course much more problematic during a lockdown. 

We are asking the University to extend and be clear about the “best endeavours” approach and just ask staff to do their best to balance their caring and work responsibilities until the lockdown is over. 

Safety on campus – building closures and risk assessments

At present the University is maintaining that almost all buildings will remain open. UNISON feel this is an inadequate response to the severity of the situation we find ourselves in and we have asked for urgent consultation to take place about what remains open and how services are staffed.

Our current view is that the safest possible course of action is to reduce activity on campus to a level where volunteers in most support staff roles are sufficient to maintain buildings and their services. Where this isn’t possible at the very least vulnerable staff should be released from on campus work, whether by shifting them to home working or by using the furlough scheme.  

At the same time all risk assessments for buildings need to be revised to take into account the risks from the new variant of the virus. In particular the following are likely to be really key:

  • Adherence to existing policies such as mask usage – the more people keep to rules the safer things will be
  • Distancing – we feel it is likely that most environments will need to return to 2m rather than 1m+ distancing
  • Ventilation – increasingly this is being seen as the key measure that affects virus transmission given the big difference in transmission indoors and outdoors

Working from home 

  • Guidance for all workers who can work effectively from home is to do so – we know that the University heavily relies on the reference to education as being one of the settings where this may not be possible, but according to basic H&S principles, any activity taking place on campus at the moment should be restricted to that which is absolutely necessary.
  • If you can work from home and want to continue doing so but are still being asked to go in, speak to your line manager and outline that you feel things have become too dangerous for any on-campus “rotas” or “keeping-in-touch” arrangements to remain in place. We will be working on model letters for you to use when doing this so check back here – in the meantime we can help you draft letters to escalate things if necessary 
  • We know that some members find home working very difficult and genuinely want to continue being able to work on campus for at least some of the time. We will try and take account of this in our negotiations and will balance these valid and understandable concerns in our discussions around on campus services

Section 44 and what this means

In general terms all workers have an absolute right under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act to remove themselves from or to refuse to go into an environment that puts themselves or others at risk of serious and imminent harm. If you have a genuine belief that your coming on to campus will put you or others around you at risk then you should not face any detriment for remaining at home (See this excellent article from colleagues in Birmingham UCU for a good summary as well as advice from national UNISON).

We’d advise speaking to your line manager in the first instance – if they maintain that you need to come onto campus despite your concerns then please contact us for further advice. This will probably involve sending an initial formal letter to record the concerns, with a follow up letter confirming the use of the act if action is not taken immediately. There may be specific circumstances where reliance on the act is advised by safety representatives, such as the recent situation in Primary Schools

 

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