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How safe are the plans for September?

Update 07.09.21 – Additional point added on areas where face coverings are required

As September begins we find ourselves in a broadly similar situation to last year – coming out of a summer where restrictions have been minimal into a new academic year, in which the key driver seems to be to keep things as “normal” as possible. 

While the main difference this year will be the protection that vaccination provides to many, there are already some clear warning signs that indicate that both Universities and society at large are walking into the same mistakes that led to restrictions being reimposed in October and November last year. Furthermore, not all staff and students will be fully vaccinated by the time term recommences, some will be unable to receive the vaccine and there is also the risk of potential new variants of the virus to consider.

Below we review the key elements of the situation as it stands now – the government position, the University’s plans and advice from us specifically.

Government guidance

The university (and all universities) relies heavily on the latest government guidance to support its approach and so it makes sense to start here. Government has issued both general guidance to employers as well as specific guidance to universities. At times this guidance is contradictory – for example the general guidance for employers on offices and similar spaces contains the following statement:

Face coverings are no longer required by law. However, the government expects and recommends that people continue to wear face coverings in crowded, enclosed spaces.”

While the university-specific guidance, though containing a reference to the above wording in general guidance, also says the following:

“Face coverings are no longer advised for students, staff and visitors either in teaching rooms or in communal areas.”

This clearly begs the question of what to do about crowded, enclosed teaching spaces, as well as other “communal” areas at University that may not have anything to do with direct teaching provision. The root cause of this problem is government uncertainty on whether universities should be treated as more similar to schools (where they are committed to removing as many safeguards as possible) or other workplaces (where much is left up to the individual employer). While the guidance issued to Universities highlights their autonomy and ability to make their own decisions about how education is delivered, the government has also made noises about expectations that Universities will offer face to face teaching for all or be forced to offer refunds of fees

The clearest message across guidance directly from the government as well as from the HSE is the importance of ventilation. Supplies of as much fresh air as possible into indoor spaces should be maintained, with CO2 monitors used where necessary to evaluate the quality of ventilation. At the same time, the legal responsibilities on employers in general health and safety law have not disappeared. Like any employer, the University has a duty to risk assess and mitigate against Covid-19 as they do with any other hazard. This also means that the most effective control measures need to be considered in the first instance – i.e. eliminating a hazard entirely or substituting a less hazardous activity for a less hazardous one. 

University plans

Bearing the above in mind, the University’s overall plan has the following main features:

  • All teaching will take place in person but will as far as possible also be streamed online at the same time, allowing students to decide themselves whether to attend in person or online. 
  • Other services, such as libraries, cafes and restaurants will be open as close to normal as possible. Some mitigations such as the use of screens will remain in place
  • Face coverings are (depending on the document you read) either “supported and encouraged” or “strongly encouraged”, but not required except in specific areas  
  • Each building owner / safety co-ordinator has reviewed risk assessments and considered which mitigations to remove and which to keep in place. 

While the above-described flaws in government guidance do place the University in a difficult position, the University’s own decision making has itself been flawed in several key respects, all of which we’ve highlighted repeatedly over the last month. In particular:

  • There hasn’t been a single timescale or University-wide plan for the revision of risk assessments – this has led to some departments (prudently) keeping existing controls in place until new signage is ready, while other departments have pushed ahead with removing all signage straight away. 
  • The delegation of all decision making to building owners will also mean that things feel inconsistent on campus, with some buildings retaining one-way systems and others removing them. 
  • One of the biggest areas of confusion is likely to be face coverings – there will continue to be signs at key points where risk assessment determines face coverings to be required but this runs the risk of being obscured by the wider message of only “encouraging” their use. 
  • It’s also unclear exactly how ventilation will provide enough mitigation in a completely full lecture theatre

The areas where face coverings are required should include, according to government guidance and the University’s own risk assessment, “congested areas, crowded enclosed spaces and where people may come into contact with people they do not normally meet”. It’s currently unclear whether sufficient signage will be displayed across campus to cover all such areas, and the University is also silent on how they will ensure this “requirement” is met other than saying they expect people will comply with signage. 

There are some simple improvements that can be made to the overall plans which we will continue to push for in the run up to the start of term – for example, clarifying the message about face coverings would help a great deal. The combination of the weaknesses of government guidance, the University’s approach and a possible rapid increase in infections could result in a hazardous situation at the start of term. 

UNISON advice

We are still pushing for improvements to the University’s plans and the wider situation could change very quickly. Everyone’s own individual situations will also differ with some people having worked on campus and student accommodation throughout the past year, while others may have worked at home consistently or may have only started to work on campus in a limited way over the summer. 

That being said there are some key points that we feel apply to everyone’s situation:

  • The building(s) you work in need to be covered by an up to date risk assessment. These are available online and should now or very shortly be up to date with a “last reviewed” date in August. We’d encourage all staff to look over these and to let us know if there are things you think they’ve missed or risks they underestimate.
  • Regular communication should be taking place, providing information about how risks involved with work activities are being managed. Key questions staff may want to ask include whether distancing is being maintained in offices (and if not what alternative measures are being put in place), how ventilation is being maximised and how the provision of face to face services is being managed.
  • Mitigations made for “at risk” groups of staff should be reviewed and updated. There is no reason to jettison individual risk assessments because of the change to government guidance. Measures such as modified start times are likely to remain important because of heightened case numbers and the reliance of many staff on public transport. 

More broadly (and as we’ve said before) staff retain the right to avoid or leave settings they feel pose a serious and imminent danger. We’d advise members to pay close attention to compliance with the controls specified in the risk assessment – for example, if masks are not being worn by the majority of people in an area where they are required, this could indicate that mitigations are not being applied in the way specified by the assessment, making that area unsafe. 

In coming weeks the branch will also be keeping a close eye on the situation as well as guidance from our regional and national officers – if events do head in the same direction as they did last autumn, with the reopening of schools driving a huge increase in transmission, it would be irresponsible of government and individual universities not to act. 

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