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UCU response to prime minister's statement

22 February 2021

UCU said any wider reopening of college and university campuses from 8 March is irresponsible and risks undoing the country's hard work to get Covid-19 rates down.

The union called on employers to use common sense and keep teaching online wherever possible to reduce the risk of further Covid-19 outbreaks. It said that for many courses this would mean there should mean no return to on-campus activity this academic year.

Where courses do require an element of in-person teaching, the union said employers must meet with UCU health and safety representatives to agree new risk assessments to protect staff, students and the wider community. It said assessments need to take account of a number of factors including the increased transmissibility of new variants, ventilation, PPE and how to support workers who need to shield. It also raised concerns over the potential use of unreliable lateral flow tests.

UCU said that where staff feel their health and safety is being put at risk, it will support members to fight to protect themselves, colleagues and students, including through industrial action ballots.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The prime minister seems to be pushing ahead with an irresponsible reopening of schools, colleges and universities at the same time. Pushing students and staff back onsite increases the risk of more Covid outbreaks and threatens to undo the country's hard work to get infection rates down.

'Lateral flow tests are completely unsuitable for testing on campuses. They are unreliable and incorrect negative results may give people a false sense of security, increasing the risk outbreaks. The government must not use them to reopen campuses.

'We expect employers to keep teaching online wherever possible to prevent campuses from seeding the virus. For many courses this will mean no return to campus this academic year. UCU accepts that some university and college courses will need some in-person teaching but this needs to be very carefully managed to keep staff and students safe. Employers will need to agree new risk assessments with our health and safety representatives that take account of increased transmission rates of new variants, ventilation, PPE and how vulnerable employees will be supported to stay off campus.

'Employers must work with us to protect staff and student safety. If our members feel that their health and safety is being put at risk, then we will support them to protect themselves, including through balloting for industrial action where necessary.'

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