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Follow-up information on communications with the University regarding Coronavirus

Following our last post about the information we wanted from the University in relation to the Coronavirus, today has seen a rapid series of events on campus, including reports of a suspected diagnosis, the closure of offices, and an email from the Vice Chancellor (which includes the announcement of  “restricted campus operations” by the end of term on the 27th March).

Particular points we’ve noticed today include:

  • at 9pm today, the University sent out an update advising “staff or students who are over 70, pregnant, or have pre-existing health conditions” to work from home “with immediate effect
  • a focus on “teaching” and “research” in University communications, e.g. there is specific attention being paid to exam arrangements, lectures and the like. There is very little said at the same time about frontline support functions such as cleaning, library access and catering. The reference to essential services in the Vice Chancellor’s latest email has led to a number of queries from members who fear that many services will be left open unnecessarily.
  • The University has formally confirmed that a member of staff may have the virus, while there are countless rumours about office closures and large numbers of staff self-isolating based on symptoms or contact with someone who has been diagnosed as having the virus.
  • Many schools/colleges are taking action unilaterally and moving all teaching online before the University’s stated deadline. 
  • Government advice changed markedly a few hours ago, with advice to avoid “gatherings and crowded places”, as well as “non-essential travel”. Furthermore “everyone should work from home if they can”. 

As a follow-up to our previous message to the University, UNISON have called on the University to urgently:

  1. Drastically bring forward the date for campus closure (what they are calling “restricted operations”). Given so many schools are stopping teaching already it makes no sense whatsoever to wait another two weeks to take action. While many areas are already instructing all staff to work from home many managers will simply not act without clear instructions centrally and the date in the VC’s latest email will be treated as concrete.   
  2. Close the vast majority of support services as soon as possible. If most staff are working from home and many students will be leaving campus anyway it makes no sense to leave services open. All those who can’t work from home should be placed on paid special leave. 
  3. We need to know urgently what the University considers to be “essential” and what steps are being taken to safeguard staff in these roles (PPE, risk assessement, health monitoring, substituion of anyone with an underlying health condition or dependents at risk). Of course, what is “essential” may change as other services shut down. Really you’d expect managers to start closing services as soon as they practically can.  

As Birmingham Uni UNISON and BUCU have pointed out recently (see this excellent post from BUCU) – you do retain the right to refuse to work in situations where your safety is at serious or imminent risk (also see this page that summarises the law really well) and proceed to a place of safety. This could apply when you are being asked to do a specific task at work that puts you at risk (and the safe place might be continuing a safer task elsewhere at the workplace) or it might mean staying away from work if it is the entire workplace that puts you at risk. We’ve highlighted this to the University, told them again to stop mentioning disciplinary threats and stated that we are keeping in touch with our members constantly and always have the safety of workers in mind.   

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