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UCU puts government and employers on notice as it launches Covid monitoring in colleges and universities

16 September 2020 | last updated: 17 September 2020

Union says institutions must have plans in place to deal with the Covid-19 threat as it launches system to allow members to directly relay their concerns

The union said its plans were prompted after it was revealed that the Department for Education does not hold information on the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in schools. UCU said it would name and shame colleges or universities that were not doing enough to keep staff, students and the wider community safe.

The union said a lack of clear guidance from the Westminster government had not helped matters, but institutions could not hide behind the failings of ministers and had to demonstrate their commitment to keeping people safe. 

It warned that any college or university not preparing to deal with a local outbreak was 'in denial' about the severity of the challenges they would most likely face. Staff will be encouraged to complete questionnaires about their institutions' plans if someone is taken ill on campus or how a college would shut down in the event of an outbreak. The union said the ministers needed to ensure a UK-wide system of coordinated testing was put in place for colleges and universities.

The union is seeking better information about testing systems in place and will also demand to know what support there will be for staff and students who need to self-isolate. Earlier this week, ministers were warned that a lack of testing could force schools in England to grind to a halt because students and staff would have to stay at home following a suspected case.

Last month UCU called for teaching online to be the default position for universities to try and stem likely Covid surges as more than a million students move across the country to study. The government's own scientific advisers SAGE have now raised concerns about the likelihood of increased cases on campus. 

Data released by Downing Street last week showed the infection rate among 17-21 year olds is at 50 in 100,000 and increasing sharply. These are the main age groups found in colleges and universities. Countries that have infections greater than 20 in 100,000 are removed from the safe travel list and require those who return to quarantine.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The evidence suggests that colleges and universities will be hit with further Covid outbreaks and any institution not preparing for how it deals with one is in denial and failing staff, students and the wider community.

'We have already seen warnings that schools could be brought to a halt due to a lack of testing. We want to know what plans colleges and universities have for testing, details of their risk assessments and how they will protect people in the event of an outbreak.

'We accept that guidance from the government has not been up to scratch, but colleges and universities cannot hide behind the failings of ministers. They must step up and do the right things to protect their communities. 

'We will be monitoring what comes in from members and will name and shame institutions that are not up to scratch. Our main objective is to help avert a preventable public health crisis. But if our members are concerned with how their college or university is behaving we will back them if they vote to move into dispute, which could result in ballots for industrial action.'

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