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UCU issues legal challenge over Westminster government's decision to ignore SAGE advice

24 October 2020

UCU hopes legal action will help prevent third Covid wave in January.

UCU has launched a legal challenge against the Westminster government over its decision to ignore advice from its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), reported The Observer.

SAGE warned in September that unless teaching at colleges and universities moved online Covid outbreaks were likely, but the government ignored the warnings and said it was safe for students to return to campuses in September for in-person teaching. UCU believes this decision was unlawful. The legal action is a significant escalation of the union's campaign to protect the health and safety of staff and students.

The union said teaching at English universities must be moved online now so that students can return home as soon as possible, not at Christmas, and that the government must not be allowed to repeat this disaster next term.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'SAGE told the government in September that unless teaching at colleges and universities moved online outbreaks were very likely, but ministers ignored its advice.

'We may never know the full impact of the decision to ignore SAGE's warning, but we have seen infection rates up to seven times higher at universities than in surrounding areas, and over 27,000 cases of Covid on campus with reports of students in intensive care. We are now witnessing a second wave that was preventable.

'Westminster's failure to support the higher education sector financially has driven universities to prioritise student recruitment over health and safety, with staff, students and local communities paying the price.

'We are taking this legal action to find out why the government ignored its own scientists' advice, and to pressure it to move all but essential in-person teaching at English universities online, so that we can lower the rate of transmission and help stem the crisis. At the same time we need stronger guidance and better support to minimise and control outbreaks in English colleges.

'Students who were told that campuses would be safe have been betrayed by ministers. Steps need to be taken to allow students to return home safely as soon as possible - not two weeks before Christmas. Once students have returned home, ministers should consult their scientific advisors and staff and student unions to determine whether it is safe for them to go back to campus in January. We hope this legal action will stop the government making the same mistakes next term. It would be reprehensible if ministers and universities unleashed a new wave of infections by repeating this farce.'

UCU sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson on Friday 23 October. The union argues the decision to not direct and support English universities and colleges to move to online teaching from September 2020 was unlawful because of its irrationality, and procedural unfairness.

The union is seeking an urgent review of Westminster's decision and to be consulted before any new decision is made. It has also asked the government to explain why it did not follow SAGE's advice on 21 September. The government has until 6 November to respond.

Analysis collated by UCU shows over 27,000 university staff and students have tested positive for Covid since the start of term. Recorded cases have jumped from 10,000 since 10 October, and 20,000 since 16 October. The Guardian has reported infection rates up to seven times higher at universities than in surrounding areas. Cases have also been reported of students with Covid needing intensive care at hospital. UCU has been calling for university teaching to be moved online since August.

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