UCU calls for vulnerable to work remotely as Omicron surges

Union updates guidance to branches that also calls for ‘high quality’ face masks to be made available to staff

January 12, 2022
Source: iStock

The UK’s main university union has asked institutions to allow clinically vulnerable staff to work remotely and make higher quality face masks available for those on campus as part of measures to tackle the Omicron coronavirus variant.

After issuing updated guidance to its institutional representatives, the head of the University and College Union said it was asking employers to “raise their game” ahead of campuses reopening this month.

The union also said it was calling for all indoor spaces to be monitored to make sure that there was adequate ventilation and for air filtration units to be used where necessary.

The guidance calls for universities to “ensure appropriate levels of support” and sick pay for staff who need to self-isolate or stay at home to care for others regardless of contract type.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that with Omicron “surging throughout the UK”, it was “clear employers need to raise their game to ensure staff and students are kept safe and education is not disrupted”.

“The measures put forward by UCU are designed to reduce the risk of mass Covid outbreaks, protect those who are vulnerable and ensure staff are able to continue delivering a high-quality education for students,” she said.

The guidance says universities should “ensure any workers at increased risk from Covid-19 are not required to undertake in person work at this time and that alternatives are offered to reduce exposure risks”.

It adds that institutions should also seek to “reduce the number of people required on site while transmission rates remain high and implement measures to reduce mixing and close contact transmission in indoor work settings”.

On face masks, the guidance says staff should have access “to high quality, well-fitting face masks which offer effective levels of respiratory protection from airborne transmission”. It refers specifically to “FFP2 standard face masks” that “filter at least 94 per cent of viral particles” and FFP3 face masks that “filter at least 99 per cent”. 

Meanwhile, the guidance also asks for workloads to be taken into account for those continuing to work while others are absent.

“While the Westminster government warns employers to prepare for up to 25 per cent staff absences, UCU is aware of the impact staffing shortages could have on the physical and mental health of staff who are already at breaking point due to high workloads and work-related stress,” the guidance says.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that institutions had worked with unions to draw up joint principles for a safe return to campus.

“These principles have been reviewed regularly and additional joint guidance has been issued. HE institutions will continue to be mindful of government advice and to comply with [Health and Safety Executive] requirements,” Mr Jethwa said.

“Although there is no evidence of transmission in HE teaching settings, we have always encouraged unions to engage constructively with HE institutions to ensure a safe working environment.”


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Reader's comments (6)

This seems rather belated as we head toward reduced and then removed restrictions. Project fear revisited as ever.
University campuses are some of the safest places to work, while students have really suffered from Covid. Yet the UCU continues to demand privileged levels of protection for academics at the expense of students. Embarrassing, unrealistic, unprofessional.
The campus is a very safe place to work. UCU should focus on encouraging members to get vaccinated and wear face coverings. Considering that prior to Covid, many academic staff spent the majority of their time in a week, off campus, with less the half the year in scheduled teaching (with at least 16 vacation weeks) just how 'remote' do they want to be ? If you are extremely clinically vulnerable, provision is already made in current government guidance and all institutions have occupational health assessments and arrangements. Whilst UCU grandstand for better paid employees, their members expect the very lowest paid employees to be on campus, making it safe for them. Contempt that came to the fore during the recent strike action, as UCU encouraged direct student action and occupations by fringe activists, all of which had to be cleaned up by our poorest paid colleagues during a new variant wave. UCUs credibility is somewhat frayed.
16 vacation weeks? Where do you work?
The lack of accountability on the part of senior management, inconsistent application of university policies and regulations, indiscriminate cutting of front line staff while middle management and top management expands, inequities in pay, inequites in promotion and progression opportunities, favouritism, nepotism and various other insidious forms of discrimination, lack of transparency in the decision making process. There are a number of deep issues that have affected the morale and well being of staff in universities that UCU should really take up the fight on. Most universities have already made exceptional provisions for staff and student well being. The "16 week vacation" comment is ridiculous and off campus does not mean off work.
"off campus does not mean off work" Unfortunately, many managers still think that off campus means off work, or that staff is slacking at home doing nothing. Somehow, lectures are still being delivered, in many cases simultaneously face-to-face and online for the students who do not attend in person. This means that staff had to adjust delivery and provide means of engagement with students who are in the room AND online. This doesn't happen overnight; it needs work. Strangely, many staff have also continued submitting manuscripts, project proposal, supervising PhDs and anything else they were doing pre-pandemic on campus but had to adjust to off campus settings as well. Almost 2 years of yo-yo of face-to-face / online / both simultaneously, has impacted on staff morale, but that's not the only factor. The impact the lack of trust senior management has of their staff is much greater. Most people would be willing to put in the extra effort if they felt appreciated and they contribution valued. Instead, senior management still clings to a pre-pandemic reality that is long gone, especially in terms of targets. UCU should focus there.